Pope Francis headed to Hungary Friday for a three-day visit likely to be dominated by the war in Ukraine and his meeting with nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose views often clash with his own.

The 86-year-old Argentine pontiff will only stay in the capital Budapest during his trip, due to his fragile health a month after being hospitalised for bronchitis.

The pope departed Rome’s Fiumicino Airport at approximately 8:20 local time (0620 GMT) and is expected to arrive at 10:00 am (0800 GMT) in the Hungarian capital, where key roads have been blocked for days as part of a major security operation surrounding the visit.

After being received at the presidential palace by President Katalin Novak -- who told local media she was brushing up on her Spanish ahead of the visit -- Francis will meet with Orban.

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In power since 2010, the Hungarian premier regularly espouses anti-migration rhetoric to defend a “Christian Europe”.

This is at odds with the pontiff’s more welcoming stance towards those fleeing poverty or conflict zones.

Nevertheless, during an audience last year at the Vatican, Francis thanked Orban -- who comes from a Calvinist background -- for Hungary’s welcome of Ukrainians fleeing the war across the border.

Five months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the pope made a seven-hour stopover in Budapest for an international religious event, during which he promised to return to the country where 39 percent of the population is Catholic.

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Francis’ first speech of the visit will come midday Friday, when he addresses Hungarian authorities, diplomats and members of civil society.

On Sunday, the pontiff said his visit would be made “as a pilgrim, friend and brother of all”, and government authorities in Hungary stressed that his visit was “not a political event”.

While in Budapest, Francis will as usual be accompanied by his doctor.

Last month he spent three nights in hospital with bronchitis, fuelling concerns about his long-term health and future as head of the worldwide Catholic Church.

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- ‘His words have power’ -

Later Friday afternoon, the pope will meet local bishops and clergy at St Stephen’s Basilica, where giant screens set up in the square filled with chairs will transmit his speech live to the public.

“It’s wonderful that the pope is coming back to Hungary so soon after his last trip,” Annamaria Szentesi, a 32-year-old, told AFP.

“I hope his main message will be one of peace in the world. His words have a lot of power.”

On his 41st international trip since becoming pope in 2013, Francis plans to meet young people, local church members and representatives of the academic and cultural sectors, and will hold an open-air mass on Sunday.

On Saturday, the pope -- who has repeatedly appealed for peace in Ukraine but whose attempts at mediating the conflict have so far failed to yield results -- will also meet with Ukrainian refugees.

Orban, keen to maintain ties with Moscow, has been careful not to criticise Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war.

He has refused to send arms to Kyiv and denounces sanctions against Moscow, a stance that has complicated Hungary’s relations with Ukraine and soured ties with its EU partners.

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In a society where family and gender rights are hot political issues, pro-Orban media has criticised the pope in the past for being too favourable to migrants and the LGBTQ community.

But Zoltan Kiszelly, the head of pro-government thinktank Szazadveg, says Orban will use the pope’s visit to emphasise shared “traditional values, around family and God”.

“Domestically, Orban can profit from this visit,” Kiszelly said.

Francis is the second pope to visit Hungary, after John Paul II made trips in 1991 and 1996.

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Comments (2)

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William Spillman
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I see that the Pope will be visiting his 'brother' Orban and they will undoubtedly be discussing how they can best undermine Ukraine so that Putin succeeds. The neo-fascist faction withing the Vatican will undoubtedly be very pleased.

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Anya Lauchlan
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Ukraine is a Ukrainian nation, not a piece of land for grab. Russia has enough land already, and more than enough population to make it all suitable for comfortable living, without robbing and killing the neighbours, without stealing their children.

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