About a thousand refugees and poor people are expected to gather at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Budapest, according to the Vatican – Copyright AFP Attila KISBENEDEK
Clément MELKI with Peter MURPHY
Pope Francis, on a three-day visit to Hungary, will meet Ukrainian and other refugees on Saturday as many struggle under nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s policies.
On his arrival Friday, the 86-year-old Argentine in his first speech to Orban and other government officials stressed “the need for openness towards others”, warning against “withdrawing into oneself”.
Hungary’s government — in a departure from its usual anti-refugee stand — has welcomed those fleeing the war in neighbouring Ukraine.
But activists say there is barely a support system in place, while Orban’s insistence on maintaining ties with Moscow puts off Ukrainians.
About a thousand refugees and poor people are expected to gather at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Budapest, according to the Vatican.
The pope will address them at about 10:15 am (0815 GMT).
– ‘Demolished’ system –
During an audience last year at the Vatican, Francis thanked Orban for welcoming Ukrainian refugees.
Since Russia invaded its neighbour more than a year ago, more than two million Ukrainians have crossed into Hungary, but just 35,000 have applied for the EU’s temporary protection status in the country.
That’s far fewer than in other countries just west of Ukraine.
Within the EU, Hungary’s prime minister is an exception in refusing to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin by name after Moscow invaded.
He is also refusing to send military aid to Ukraine and has blasted EU sanctions against Russia — making many Ukrainian refugees feel uncomfortable.
They also face a “demolished” refugee support system, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) rights group.
Since 2020, after the EU forced Budapest to close controversial so-called border transit zones that Brussels called “detention camps”, Budapest only accepts asylum seekers’ applications at Hungarian embassies abroad.
This has slowed the number of asylum seekers to a trickle.
On Saturday, those gathering include people from Ukraine, but also from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria and other countries.
HHC said an Iranian man “who fled persecution for his Christian faith” with his 12-year-old son would meet the pope.
– Stadium filler –
The two, who were granted refugee status in Hungary with HHC’s legal assistance after almost three years, were detained for 553 days in a transit zone before those were closed, the group said.
Earlier on Saturday, the pope will also meet disabled children.
Later in the day, he visits the Greek Catholic community.
He closes the day by speaking to an expected 11,000 youths in a stadium before having a private meeting with Jesuits.
On Sunday, he will preside over an open-air mass.
It is Francis’ 41st international trip since becoming pope in 2013 and his first abroad after spending three nights in hospital with bronchitis last month, fuelling concerns about his long-term health.
Francis last visited Hungary — where 39 percent of the population of 9.7 million people are Catholic — in a brief stopover in 2021.
Francis is the second pope to visit Hungary, after John Paul II made trips in 1991 and 1996.