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.
The meeting was the second between Francis and Orban in less than a year. The pope made a brief stop in Budapest to close out a church congress in September. 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.
But the war in Ukraine has put the warm relations between Budapest and Warsaw to the test, revealing fault lines caused by differing 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 long pursued close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in recent weeks refused to supply Ukraine with weapons or allow their transfer across the Hungary-Ukraine border. The Hungarian government also has lobbied heavily against expanding EU sanctions to include a ban on Russian energy imports, on which Hungary is dependent.
Francis, for his part, has long sought to improve relations 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.
Francis is still seeking to keep open a path of dialogue with Kirill, however. They spoke by video call last month, and there have been reports they might meet face-to-face in Jerusalem in June.
Spike reported from Budapest, Hungary.
Follow AP's coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Nicole Winfield And Justin Spike, The Associated Press