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Pope Francis criticizes political use of Christianity

ROME – Pope Francis on Tuesday categorically rejected the use of the cross as a political tool, an apparent attack on nationalist forces in Europe and beyond who have used imagery of Christianity for personal gain.

“Let us not reduce the cross to an object of devotion, let alone a political symbol, a sign of religious and social status,” Francis said in eastern Slovakia during a four-day visit to this country. and to Hungary, his first trip since undergoing bowel surgery in July.

The remarks came two days after Francis stopped in Budapest, where he met Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who made Hungary’s Christian roots and identity the hallmark of his message and political policies, including anti-immigrant and nationalist measures.

“The cross is not a flag to be waved, but the pure source of a new way of life,” said Francis, adding that a Christian “does not regard anyone as an enemy, but everyone as a brother or a sister”.

Francis is used to speaking more freely and critically about a country after leaving it. In 2017, he spoke out in favor of the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar after leaving that country for neighboring Bangladesh.

On Sunday, he urged the bishops of Hungary to embrace diversity. And after celebrating Mass there, with Mr. Orban in the front row, he said strong Christian roots allow a nation to reach out “to all.”

But the pope’s words in Slovakia on Tuesday were more direct. He appeared to extend his criticism to politicians and activists who use Christian references and symbols to gain traction in so-called culture wars.

“How many times do we desire a Christianity of conquerors,” he asked, “a triumphalist Christianity that is important and influential, that receives glory and honor?

Francis was speaking to around 30,000 worshipers in Presov, in eastern Slovakia, where he presided over a Byzantine rite known as the Divine Liturgy, which is used by the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches.

He then added to his message of inclusion by traveling to meet the country’s Roma, who have long been victims of discrimination and poverty, in the dilapidated and isolated neighborhoods of Kosice.

In his homily on Tuesday, Francis spoke at length about Christian identity, lamenting that the cross and crucifix have too often become mere ornaments, diluting their true meaning.

What is the value, he asked, of hanging a crucifix on a rearview mirror or around one’s neck if a person has no meaningful relationship with Jesus? “What good is it,” he said, “if we don’t stop to look at Jesus crucified and open our hearts to him?

In recent years, some European politicians have used religious symbols as part of campaign messages focusing on identity politics.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the populist League party, has often campaigned with a rosary in his hand. During a rally with far-right leaders from France, Germany and the Netherlands, he also invoked the protection of the Virgin Mary over Italy.

Some conservative Vatican cardinals – many of whom are very critical of Francis – have spoken enthusiastically about Mr. Salvini and also expressed sympathy for Mr. Orban.

In interviews ahead of the Pope’s visit on Sunday, several Hungarian priests and other Catholics in Budapest echoed Mr Orban’s emphasis on Hungary as a Christian country. They said the prime minister had been unfairly criticized for opposing waves of predominantly Muslim migration, which he compared to an invasion.

On Sunday, Mr. Orban and Francis gathered for a courtesy meeting that lasted 40 minutes, and the prime minister urged the pontiff “not to let Christian Hungary perish”.

Francis only spent seven hours in Hungary, despite calls from his bishops to stay longer.

The Vatican said the Pope’s visit to Budapest was of a purely spiritual nature, to celebrate the closing mass of a week-long Catholic congress. But others close to the Pope admitted there might be a tacit message to Mr Orban in the mismatch between time spent in Hungary and time spent in Slovakia, which is led by a progressive president who, like Francis, is critical of nationalism.