In Romania's Transylvania, Pope Francis set for Hungarian welcome

Miercurea Ciuc (Romania) (AFP) –


The focal point of Pope Francis's trip to Romania, an open-air mass Saturday in a predominantly ethnic-Hungarian part of the picturesque Transylvania region, is keenly awaited for both faith and national identity reasons.

Around 200,000 visitors, mostly ethnic Hungarian Catholics, are expected to journey to a holy site on a verdant hillside near Miercurea Ciuc, 215 kilometres north of Bucharest, where the Pope will celebrate mass.

"It is the most important Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in southeastern Europe," Ede Csont, a priest and co-organiser of the mass, told AFP as workers applied finishing touches to the altar.

Most pilgrims will be Romania-based ethnic-Hungarians, but organisers say some 25,000 will also travel from Hungary itself, as well as from Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine, all countries with sizeable Hungarian communities.

After the dismantling of the defeated Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of World War I some two million Magyars were left stranded in neighbouring countries.

For Catholics in the "Szeklerland" area near the Carpathian mountains where some 600,000 ethnic-Hungarians comprise a majority of the population, the Pope's visit is seen as welcome recognition of their separate identity.

"It's a unique moment in our history, the first time the Holy Father visits us," said Csont, who calls the pilgrimage site "the spiritual centre of the Szekler people".

- Separate identity -

Romanian is rarely heard in the Szeklerland ("Szekelyfold" in Hungarian, "Tinutul Secuiesc" in Romanian), where even the voicemail at the town hall in Miercurea Ciuc, which has a population of 39,000, speaks first in Hungarian, second in Romanian.

The tranquil area is usually disturbed only when marchers carry the blue Szekler flag through streets and call for the region's autonomy, a demand that irks the authorities in Bucharest and riles Romanian nationalists.

A former prime minister said in 2018 that anyone flying the Szekler flag from public buildings should be "hung".

Given the acrimony, the Pope's slogan for this three-day trip in Romania of "Going Forward Together" is ambitious, according to Miercurea Ciuc mayor Robert Kalman Raduly.

"It's not an easy message," he told AFP.

An advocate of Szekler autonomy, Raduly was sanctioned by the Romanian authorities in March over his insistence that all town hall staff should know Hungarian.

"There is a perception among Romanians that Szeklers may be physically present in Romania but psychologically they are completely linked to Hungary," Nandor Bardi, a minorities expert at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, told AFP.

An annual Pentecost pilgrimage to the holy site that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, many carrying Hungarian flags, also usually includes top politicians from Budapest among the throng.

Hungary's nationalist premier Viktor Orban is not going to Saturday's mass, but his deputy Zsolt Semjen and President Janos Ader -- both Catholics unlike Orban -? will attend.

Orban has been building ties with the diaspora since he returned to power in 2010 as part of a so-called "national policy" that is seen warily in Romania as an effort to extend Budapest's reach.

In 2018 alone Hungary spent an estimated 250 million euros ($280 million) on churches, schools, cultural and sporting centres and groups outside its borders, mostly in the Transylvania region.

A 2011 law also offered dual citizenship to Magyars abroad, that according to Orban, "makes Hungarians officially part of the Hungarian nation again".

Voting rights in Hungary were later granted to the new citizens, who have almost all cast their ballots ever since for Orban.

Budapest has also allocated around half a million euros ($560,000) to help cover the costs of the Pope's visit.

Not "interference" in another country, but rather "help for the local organisers," insisted a government official in Budapest earlier this month.

The Romanian authorities have still not confirmed which officials will attend the mass.

A source close to the government told AFP: "We are wary of provocations from the Hungarians".

But the visit of Pope Francis, who has encouraged a welcoming attitude toward refugees, is also awkward for Orban's government whose trademark policy is its tough approach to migrants.

"Many locals feel conflicted," said Boroka Paraszka, an ethnic-Hungarian journalist in Targu Mures, the largest city in the Szeklerland.

"Those who have absorbed Budapest's anti-refugee narrative are experiencing cognitive dissonance, and asking why this 'migrant-hugging Pope' is coming to a national pilgrimage place," she told AFP.

"But most have been waiting for decades that one day the Pope would visit, so there is a lot of excitement".