Pope Francis has thanked Hungarians for welcoming Ukrainian refugees and urged them to help anyone in need, as he begged for a culture of charity in a country where the prime minister has justified firm anti-immigration policies with fears that migration threatens Europe’s Christian culture.
On the second day of a visit to Hungary, Francis met refugees and poor people at St Elizabeth’s church, which was named after a Hungarian princess who renounced her wealth to dedicate herself to the poor as a follower of the pope’s namesake, St Francis of Assisi.
Speaking in the white-brick church in Budapest, Francis recalled that the gospel instructs Christians to show love and compassion to all, especially those experiencing poverty and pain and “even those who are not believers”.
“The love that Jesus gives us and commands us to practice can help to uproot the evils of indifference and selfishness from society, from our cities and the places where we live – indifference is a plague – and to rekindle hope for a new, more just and fraternal world, where all can feel at home,” he said.
The conservative populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, has said that migration threatens to replace Europe’s Christian culture.
Mr Orban, who has held office since 2010, has hinged multiple election campaigns on the threats he alleges migrants and refugees pose to Hungarians.
While Mr Orban’s government has consistently rejected asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, some 2.5 million Ukrainians fleeing war in their country found open doors.
Around 35,000 of the refugees remain in Hungary and have registered for temporary protection there, according to the UN.
Yet monetary assistance for the Ukrainian refugees has been meagre. Fewer Ukrainians have opted to stay in Hungary than any other country in Eastern Europe except Belarus.
First she went to the Netherlands, but high costs compelled her to move to Hungary, where she said she has found an apartment and given birth to her third daughter, Mila, who was in the pews on Saturday with her mother and sister.
“Here it’s safe,” Ms Misiats said of her new life. She said she hopes one day to return to Kyiv, but for now she and her children are adapting.
“I want to go back home. There it’s my life, it was my life,” she said. “But the war changed my life.”
Francis praised Hungary’s Catholic Church for providing aid to people fleeing war and urged continued charity towards any who need help.
He heard from members of a Ukrainian family who fled Russia’s invasion, travelling for days to reach Hungary after missiles rained down on their hometown of Dnipro in May last year.
Oleg Yakovlev said he decided to bring his wife and five children to Hungary because he had worked in the country as a cook years ago and remembered being welcomed.
“For us and our children, Hungary has been the start of a new life, of a new possibility,” Mr Yakovlev told Francis as his two eldest children played an Argentine tango on the accordion and saxophone for the Argentine pope. “Here we were welcomed, and we found a new home.”
Francis started his day visiting children who have visual and physical disabilities. In the afternoon, he has his first big public event in Hungary, a youth rally at the city’s sports stadium.
Upon arriving in Hungary on Friday, Francis urged Europe to find again its founding values of peaceful unity as he denounced the “adolescent belligerence” of Russia’s war in neighbouring Ukraine.