BUDAPEST: Pope Francis said on Sunday (Sep 12) that Hungary could preserve its Christian roots while opening up to the needy, an apparent response to nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban's stand that Muslim immigration could destroy its heritage.
Closing a Church congress with a Mass for tens of thousands of people in central Budapest, Pope Francis used the imagery of a cross to show that something as deeply rooted as religious belief did not exclude a welcoming attitude.
"The cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well-rooted, it also raises and extends its arms towards everyone," he said in his remarks after the Mass.
"The cross urges us to keep our roots firm, but without defensiveness; to draw from the wellsprings, opening ourselves to the thirst of the men and women of our time," he said at the end of the open-air Mass, which Orban attended with his wife.
"My wish is that you be like that: grounded and open, rooted and considerate," the pope said.
Pope Francis has often denounced what he sees as a resurgence of nationalist and populist movements, and has called for European unity, and criticised countries that try to solve the migration crisis with unilateral or isolationist actions.
Orban, by contrast, told the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia last week the only solution to migration was for the European Union to "give all rights back to the nation state".
The pope has called for migrants to be welcomed and integrated to tackle what he has called Europe's "demographic winter". Orban said in Slovenia that today's migrants "are all Muslims" and that only "the traditional Christian family policy can help us out of that demographic crisis".
Pope Francis, 84, who spent only about seven hours in Budapest, met Orban and President Janos Ader at the start of his visit.
The Vatican said the meeting which was also attended by the Vatican's top two diplomats and a Hungarian cardinal, lasted about 40 minutes and was cordial.
"I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish," Orban said on Facebook. Hungarian news agency MTI said Orban gave Francis a facsimile of a letter that 13th century King Bela IV sent to Pope Innocent IV asking for help in fighting the Tartars.
Later on Sunday, Pope Francis arrived in Slovakia, where he will stay much longer, visiting four cities before returning to Rome on Wednesday.
The brevity of his Budapest stay has prompted diplomats and Catholic media to suggest the pope is giving priority to Slovakia, in effect snubbing Hungary.
The Vatican has called the Budapest visit a "spiritual pilgrimage". Orban's office has said comparisons with the Slovakia leg would be "misleading".
The trip is the pope's first since undergoing major surgery in July. Pope Francis told reporters on the plane taking him to Budapest that he was "feeling fine".