Pope Urges Hungarians to 'Open Doors' to Migrants

Pope Francis speaks to journalists during the flight from Budapest to Italy on April 30, 2023, after his second visit to Hungary in less than two years. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / POOL / AFP

Aboard The Papal Plane, Undefined -- Pope Francis on Sunday called on Hungarians to "open doors" to migrants, as he wrapped up a three-day visit to the central European country led by a prime minister who is staunchly anti-immigration.

Throughout his visit to Budapest -- dominated by the war in neighbouring Ukraine -- Francis has emphasised a welcoming stance towards those fleeing conflict or poverty.

His comments have stood in stark contrast to the stance of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who, while welcoming Ukrainian refugees, has otherwise espoused anti-migration rhetoric to defend a "Christian Europe" since coming to power in 2010.

Some 50,000 people, including Orban, listened to the pope lead an open-air mass at a central Budapest square under tight security, during which the Argentine pontiff urged all, including "those with political and social responsibilities", to be more open.

"Please, let us open those doors!" said the 86-year-old pontiff, adding it was "sad and painful... to see closed doors.

"The closed doors of our selfishness with regard to others... the doors we close towards those who are foreign or unlike us, towards migrants or the poor," said Francis.

- 'Migration crises' -

At the end of the mass, the pope prayed for the "beleaguered Ukrainian people and the Russian people" and for "a future of hope, not war, a future full of cradles, not tombs, a world of brothers and sisters, not walls and barricades".

University student Levente Kiss, 21, who was among those thronging the mass, welcomed the pope's stance "that really calls us to our Christian mission to support the people in migration crises, especially the war in Ukraine".

On Sunday night, aboard his papal plane on the flight back to Rome, Francis told journalists he was willing to help facilitate the return of Ukrainian children who have been taken to Russia.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Chmygal made that request to the pope on Thursday during an audience with the pontiff.

Noting that the Holy See had successfully acted as an intermediary in past prisoner exchanges, Francis said that in this case an attempt "could also go well.

"The Holy See is disposed to do it because it's right, it's the right thing and we should help," the pope said.

Stressing that he was willing to do everything necessary for peace in Ukraine, he added: "A mission is under way, but it isn't yet public", but did not elaborate.

On Saturday, Francis met refugees -- including many from Ukraine -- at a Budapest church, where he spoke of the "evils of indifference" to those in need.

While Orban's government has welcomed those fleeing Ukraine, activists say there is barely a support system in place.

His insistence on maintaining ties with Moscow has also alienated Ukrainians.

Orban, for his part, wrote on Facebook on Sunday that: "We need peace, a world full of cradles and not graves."

The Hungarian leader has also called for peace talks to try to end the war in Ukraine.

- Heading home -

Before his return home Sunday, Francis delivered his trip's last speech to academics at a Catholic university in Budapest.

The trip to the Hungarian capital was his second visit to the country following a brief stopover in 2021.

Before that, John Paul II was the first pope to visit Hungary, where 39 percent of the population is Catholic, making trips in 1991 and 1996.

Francis's trip came a month after he spent three nights in hospital for bronchitis.

But despite persistent knee pain forcing him to move around in a wheelchair, the pope has appeared to be in good shape.

On Saturday, he met Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, a staunch Orban opponent.

He also met Hilarion, a bishop ousted as head of the Russian church's department for external relations by Russian Orthodox leader and Kremlin-backer Patriarch Kirill.

© Agence France-Presse

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