With Boris Johnson recently having fielded intense criticism for hosting Viktor Orban at Downing Street, reports suggest that Pope Francis is now facing pressure over his apparently staunch desire to avoid the autocratic Hungarian prime minister completely.
Yet rarer still is the Pope’s alleged intention to deny both Mr Orban and Hungary’s Catholic president Janos Ader the courtesy of a customary papal visit.
Citing sources within the Vatican and in Hungary, the US-based National Catholic Register reported on Thursday that the Pope wishes to stay in the country for a mere three hours before travelling to neighbouring Slovakia, where he intends to spend three-and-a-half days.
“Political tensions behind the scenes are due to the Vatican wanting to avoid any political meetings, including visiting the Presidential Palace in Budapest which should be part of the package,” a source in Budapest was quoted as saying.
Efforts are reportedly underway to convince the Pope to remain in Hungary beyond the morning of 12 September in order to avoid a diplomatic rift, with Budapest said to have offered persistent invitations for the pope to make a state visit.
The first public hint of possible tensions regarding the trip seem to have appeared in March, when the 84-year-old Pope told reporters during a flight back from a three-day visit to Iraq that he had felt more tired during that journey than in previous ones, and pontificated over whether his intensely busy travel schedule could slow down.
“Now I will have to go to Hungary to the final Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress,” the Pope was reported as saying. “Not a visit to the country, but for that Mass. But Budapest is a two-hour drive from Bratislava: why not pay a visit to the Slovaks? I don't know.”
Echoing The Register’s report, Luis Badilla, editor of the semi-official Vatican news aggregator Il Sismografo, also showed his concern over the apparent confusion in a blog post on Thursday, which indicated that the publication of the pontifical programme in Hungary had been expected on 26 May, along with an expected clarification of Pope Francis’s plans for a visit to Slovakia – neither of which have yet materialised.
“There is something wrong here, at least from the point of view of diplomatic and protocol formality,” Mr Badilla wrote. “Thinking like this is the wrong move.
“What the Pope does, any Pope, cannot appear or be presented – as some press has done in recent weeks – as a use of his diplomacy to divide, separate and distinguish countries, peoples and ruling classes.”
Yet with sources in Budapest telling The Register that to snub Hungarian leaders and then spend three of the following days in a country with which it has previously had a chequered history would be akin to “a gigantic slap in the face”, the newspaper also suggested Mr Orban’s government may have been among the unnamed targets of Pope Francis’s public disapproval in the past.
In his third encyclical, published in October, the Pope lamented that current times “seem to be showing signs of a certain regression”, taking aim at “instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism” which he warned were “on the rise”.
Such concerns have been widely raised about Hungary under Mr Orban’s premiership – not least last week when he was greeted at Downing Street.
No 10 argued the visit was “vital” to Britain’s interests and said afterwards that Mr Johnson had voiced “significant concerns” about media freedoms and human rights during their meeting, which came as Hungary prepares to assume presidency of the Visegrad Group – a 30-year-old alliance founded to further the European integration of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Since regaining office in 2010, Mr Orban – formerly a proponent of a so-called “illiberal democracy”, and more recently a “Christian democracy” – and his allies have moved to kneecap Hungary’s media, assert a firmer grip over the judiciary and launch various assaults on civil society and the rights of LGBT+ people.
And his government has been supported in its fierce anti-refugee rhetoric by some in the Hungarian Catholic Church – sometimes placing bishops and political figures drastically at odds with a pope who has taken a pro-refugee stance.
“Europe can ignore or deny or struggle against its own identity and its Christian roots. But by doing so the society commits suicide,” László Kiss-Rigó, the bishop of Szeged, told The Guardian in 2019. “And the more migrants that come, the more Christian values will be watered down.”
And in 2016, a founding member of Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, Zsolt Bayer accused the pope of being “either a senile old fool or a scoundrel” as a result of his views on asylum.
However, with elections due in Hungary next year, The Register reports that the Hungarian government has sought to assuage concerns that a papal visit to Hungary could potentially influence the result by also proposing visits between the Pope and opposition leaders too.
Mr Ader met the Pope during a private audience at the Vatican on 14 February 2020, a year which marked the 100th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Hungary and the Holy See.
The Hungarian president later told reporters that he had visited the Pope with the intention of inviting him to the International Eucharistic Congress, and said that Hungary had not had a papal visit since 1996.
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