Hungary and the Holy See: Alone in Europe in Calling for Peace in Ukraine

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán says nations must deescalate the war as it grows ‘more brutal,’ and the Pope echoes his call to end what he calls an ‘absurd and cruel war’

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for a private audience with the Pope on April 21, 2022 in The Vatican.
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for a private audience with the Pope on April 21, 2022 in The Vatican. (photo: Tiziana Fabi / AFP/Getty)

VATICAN CITY — Hungary and the Holy See have not often seen eye-to-eye in recent years, mainly over immigration policy, but on the Russo-Ukrainian War there appears to be a unity of opinion. 

In his annual state of the nation speech this week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claimed that Hungary and the Holy See were the only European nations left trying to deescalate the war and push for peace. 

The current conflict, which began in February 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea following a revolution that ousted a pro-Russian president of Ukraine, escalated dramatically on Feb. 24 last year when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the country, despite denying that it would do so. Russian president Vladimir Putin criticized NATO enlargement, using it as a reason for invading; he also expressed irredentist views and questioned Ukraine's right to exist. 

The invasion was internationally condemned, leading to sanctions against Russia and the giving of aid and arms to Ukraine. The Biden administration has so far given “unprecedented” military assistance to Ukraine totaling approximately $27.5 billion, and the rhetoric from a gathering of world leaders at an annual security conference in Munich this week was to arm Ukraine further so it can defeat Russia. 

But some nations have resisted this pressure, most notably Ukraine’s neighbor, Hungary, which has pushed for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, while insisting it is not a pacifist or naïve position to hold.   

“A year ago we were not alone in the peace camp,” Orbán noted in his Feb. 19 speech. “There were, for example, the Germans, who supplied no weapons, only helmets. By comparison, in a few weeks’ time Leopard tanks will be rolling eastward across Ukrainian soil, down toward the Russian border.”

Implicitly recalling Germany’s demilitarized past following the Second World War, he said he found it “hard to believe that the Germans took this turn of their own accord” but that their decision has prompted other European nations to “seep from the peace camp into the war camp.” 

“That left two of us: Hungary and the Vatican,” Orbán said. “We cannot complain about the company, but we need to address some serious consequences.” 

He went on to observe that the need to push for peace is becoming more urgent as “the war is getting wilder and more brutal.” Peace will be achieved only, Orbán said, “when the Americans and the Russians negotiate with each other,” and the later that happens, “the higher the price we will all pay.”

“Continued fighting will not bring victory and will not bring peace, but the deaths of hundreds of thousands more people, a widening conflict, countries engaged in open warfare, years of war, destruction, suffering and the threat of world war,” warned Orbán, who believes that refusal to negotiate only increases the chances of Russia using nuclear weapons. “So let us Hungarians stand by peace,” he said. 

A day after Orbán’s speech, and on the eve of the first anniversary of the invasion, Pope Francis issued an almost identical appeal for peace. He called the conflict an “absurd and cruel war,” said it was a “sad anniversary,” and asked the Lord to forgive “all these crimes and all this violence.” 

He also asked, “Has everything possible been done to stop the war?” and appealed to those in authority to make “concrete efforts to end the conflict, to reach a ceasefire and to start peace negotiations. Whatever is built on rubble can never be a true victory.”


 Countless Papal Appeals for Peace 

Since the conflict began, the Holy Father has made countless appeals for peace and expressed the Holy See’s availability to help with peace-making efforts, including a possible papal visit to Ukraine (the date for such a visit “is near” according to Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See). But Francis has largely stood alone in campaigning for peace and, like Viktor Orbán, has faced opposition and hostility as a result. 

They have different motivations, however: for the Vatican, the concerns are spiritual and humanitarian while for Hungary a key concern is the vulnerability of some 150,000 ethnic Hungarians who live in the western Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia (Zakarpattia). Ukraine is also of strategic importance to Hungary as it borders the country. 

But their similar approach appears to have helped bring Hungary and the Holy See closer, and relations have significantly improved since 2021 when Pope Francis appeared to rebuff the country’s government by making a very short stop in Hungary as part of a longer visit to Slovakia. 

Both Orbán and Hungary’s President Katalin Novák had private audiences with the Pope last year, and a few weeks ago Hungary’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, held talks with the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher. 

During each of these meetings, the war in Ukraine figured highly, with both Hungary and the Holy See wanting an immediate ceasefire and peace talks to begin while also continuing to condemn Russia’s invasion. 

Other areas of policy convergence have also emerged, such as a common line on gender ideology. 

In fact, relations have so markedly improved that a full papal visit to Hungary is now expected, and talk in Rome and Budapest is that it could take place as soon as the end of April.