Meeting Hungary’s Strongman, Pope Treads a Fine Line With an Embattled Leader

BUDAPEST — Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary portrays himself because the defender of Christian Europe towards migrants and multiculturalism. After years of his weakening of democratic establishments, the far-right strongman has ready for coming elections in Catholic-majority Hungary by strengthening his hyperlinks to Catholic traditionalists in Europe and the United States.

On Sunday, Mr. Orban will get a go to from the chief of the Roman Catholic world himself when Pope Francis drops into city to have fun Mass. Allies of Mr. Orban, who’s more and more remoted and barely receives high-profile visits from Western leaders, desperately sought to make sure face time with the pontiff, and the Vatican has confirmed a non-public courtesy assembly earlier than the Mass.

But additionally it is potential, individuals near Francis say, that Mr. Orban would possibly get greater than he requested for when he meets with maybe the globe’s main champion of migrants and a clear voice towards creeping authoritarianism and nationalism in Europe.

“One of my ways is not to go around with a script,” Francis mentioned in an interview with Spanish radio community COPE final month when requested what he anticipated to say to Mr. Orban. “When I am in front of a person, I look him in the eyes and let things come out.”

Whether Francis reads Mr. Orban the riot act on his first journey to Hungary — and his first journey overseas after main colon surgical procedure in July — the assembly between two leaders with starkly totally different visions for Europe has already set off its fair proportion of intrigue, drama and title calling.

Francis initially had deliberate to go to Budapest for under a few hours, earlier than persevering with on for 3 full days to neighboring Slovakia, which is led by a younger, pro-environment lady.

Hungary’s high clerics and authorities officers lobbied the Vatican for extra time, whereas Mr. Orban’s allies within the information media, the place his celebration holds nice sway, utilized much less well mannered strain, excoriating Francis for insulting Hungary and “behaving in an anti-Christian manner,” and for “causing extraordinary damage to the Christian world.”

The Rev. Kazmer Karpati praying on Friday at a Franciscan church in Budapest.Credit…Akos Stiller for The New York Times

The Vatican tried to decrease the temperature by pulling down the notion — first floated by Francis and later amplified in conservative Catholic media retailers — that a assembly with Mr. Orban was ever doubtful. The go to to Hungary was of layover size, the Vatican mentioned, as a result of it was non secular in nature, with the pope there to preside over the ultimate Mass of a weeklong Catholic Congress.

But the disparity between the length of the journeys to Hungary and Slovakia, Francis’ allies instructed, was maybe no accident.

“You can interpret the fact that he is not making a long visit,” mentioned the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and confidant of Francis who will journey with him. “It is a short visit. Also, this can have a significance.”

Father Spadaro mentioned he had no thought what Francis would say to the prime minister, however he anticipated the true message to Mr. Orban about his authorities’s insurance policies would come after their non-public encounter, when the pope addresses about 35 Hungarian bishops.

“The confrontation with the country will happen at the moment he speaks to its bishops,” mentioned Father Spadaro, including that he would most certainly deal with the context, and the federal government, inside which his bishops needed to function. “That’s the right space for it.”

After years of surging populism, when Mr. Orban and different nationalists appeared on the upswing and Francis discovered himself within the political wilderness, the pope once more has outstanding allies within the United States and all through Europe on points like local weather change.

But a lot of Hungary’s bishops are torn between their pontiff, who needs his monks to be on the entrance strains serving to migrants and the destitute, and an Orban authorities, which showers the church with tens of millions of in subsidies for restorations and colleges; enacts what the federal government calls pro-family “Christian” insurance policies; and establishes places of work to guard persecuted Christians in far-off lands.

“The primary problem is that the big funding from the government is compromising the church’s independence,” mentioned Bishop Miklos Beer, one in all Hungary’s few bishops keen to talk critically of Mr. Orban. “There is silence on the part of the church on the issue of migration and this is the issue where we need to need to represent what the pope says.”

“The primary problem is that the big funding from the government is compromising the church’s independence,” Bishop Miklos Beer mentioned.Credit…Akos Stiller for The New York Times

That lack of independence was harmful, Bishop Beer mentioned on Friday, as a result of it probably tied the Hungarian church’s destiny, and its monetary help, to Mr. Orban’s electoral success. He mentioned that Mr. Orban was perilously wrapping himself in Christian imagery; reaching out to Catholic traditionalists, a lot of whom oppose Francis; and searching for to fulfill the pope — all to win the election anticipated in April.

“I don’t think there is any question about how he hopes to protect his voter base,” Bishop Beer mentioned.

And there is no such thing as a doubt, both, in how Mr. Orban’s voter base within the church is defending the prime minister.

Speaking on the headquarters of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, which Budapest is internet hosting, one of many occasion’s organizers, the Rev. Kornel Fabry, mentioned on Friday that he didn’t assume Mr. Orban and Francis have been “so far from one another.” He argued that Francis would agree with Mr. Orban on valuing household and nation earlier than outsiders. (Francis has basically mentioned the alternative, stipulating that caring for migrants and the poor was as holy as opposing abortion.)

“They want to protect Christian values,” Father Fabry mentioned of Mr. Orban’s authorities. He defended Mr. Orban from accusations of demagogy and dictatorship, arguing that there have been “more and more followers of Orban” in Europe, even supposing his allies in Italy and Germany have misplaced floor.

The authorities’s speaking factors have additionally trickled right down to monks within the metropolis’s church buildings.

“It’s not only about opening up doors to the outside but how we can strengthen the church from the inside,” mentioned the Rev. Kazmer Karpati, a priest at a Franciscan church in central Budapest, who mentioned his order had benefited from the largess of the state. He was joyful Mr. Orban was assembly the pope, in order that “the two better understand each other.”

Some Hungarian clerics labored arduous to make sure that the assembly occurred and that the pope stayed so long as potential.

Asked about his position in extending the pope’s journey so Francis may meet native authorities, Cardinal Peter Erdo, Hungary’s strongest prelate, mentioned in an e mail that “the fact that the Holy Father, despite his brief time, could meet the representatives from the political world,” in addition to leaders of different faiths, is a “great sign of his friendship.”

“They want to protect Christian values,” mentioned the Rev. Kornel Fabry of the Orban authorities. Credit…Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Msgr. Norbert Nemeth, an adviser to the Hungarian Embassy to the Holy See, mentioned he labored with the Vatican on making ready the pope’s journey.

“The Hungarian bishops wanted him to stay longer, for the afternoon and even the next day,” mentioned Monsignor Nemeth, who insisted that a assembly with Mr. Orban was all the time on the books as a result of the pope “could not avoid these meetings of protocol.” He added that Francis “is not meeting a person who doesn’t accept Christian values.”

“To the contrary,” Monsignor Nemeth mentioned, “this government is really very Christian and helps the church in Hungary.”

Still, he acknowledged, “the first program had other encounters, other places of meeting.”

But he mentioned the Vatican instructed the Hungarians to maintain the pope’s go to centered subsequent to the Square of the Heroes, the place Sunday’s Mass is scheduled.

“We wanted to help the Holy Father in this sense, because he is elderly and just had a surgery,” Monsignor Nemeth mentioned.

After about seven hours in Budapest, Francis will spend the next three days on planes and in motorcades traversing a lot of Slovakia in an exhausting schedule of speeches and conferences. “So we sacrificed his trip a little,” Monsignor Nemeth mentioned, “according to the wishes of the Holy See.”

Inside St. Stephen’s Basilica on Friday in Budapest.Credit…Akos Stiller for The New York Times