Hungary’s Orban meets pope with Ukraine war as backdrop

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday as the war in Ukraine cast a shadow over two leaders who have long sought closer ties with Russia.

This was the second meeting between Francis and Orban within a little over a year. To close out the September church congress, the pope stopped briefly in Budapest. At the time, Francis pledged to return to Hungary for a proper pastoral visit even though he and Orban differ greatly on Europe’s response to migration.

Orban’s visit to the Vatican was his first foreign trip since he and his right-wing Fidesz party won Hungary’s April 3 national election, and the destination represented a departure from what has become his tradition following past elections.

Soon to begin his fourth consecutive term, Orban — the longest-serving leader in the European Union — traveled to Poland’s capital, Warsaw, to visit allies after the 2010, 2014 and 2018 Hungarian elections.

Poland is Hungary’s strongest ally in the EU, and the government’s of the two countries have supported each other in their respective battles with the bloc over allegations that their populist governments have eroded judicial independence, media freedom and the rule of law.

The war in Ukraine has tested the warmth of relations between Budapest, Warsaw and Moscow. It revealed fault lines due to different approaches to Moscow.

Poland, which has traditionally seen Russia as a major security threat, has been among Europe’s most active players in pushing for sanctions against Moscow and providing military aid to Ukraine.

Orban has had close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin since his youth. In recent weeks, Orban refused to supply Ukraine arms or allow weapons to be transferred across the Hungary-Ukraine border. Hungarians have also been vocal in their opposition to EU sanctions that would include a ban against Russian energy imports. Hungary depends on Russian energy imports.

Francis, on the other hand, has long sought to improve relations and understanding with the Russian Orthodox church. In 2016, he became the first pope in a millennium to meet with the church’s leader, Russian Patriarch Kirill.

Francis initially offered restrained criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, maintaining the Vatican’s diplomatic tradition. But he has increasingly expressed outrage over what he called a “sacrilegious” war and the creation of millions of Ukrainian refugees, while still refraining from calling out Russia or Putin by name.

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