By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent reporting from Budapest, Hungary
Aphrem II met Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Budapest last week after urging him not to back EU efforts to seize assets and force travel restrictions on Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
He was among Orthodox Christian leaders asking Orbán for help in “stopping the [EU’s executive] European Commission’s plan to impose sanctions on Patriarch Kirill of Russia,” said Orbán’s press chief Bertalan Havasi.
The European Commission views Kirill as a vital supporter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a close ally of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. It wanted to freeze the patriarch’s assets, believed
to be more than $4 billion and impose a travel ban.
However, including a Christian leader on a sanctions list would “set a precedent that would confuse millions of Christians,” the Syriac Orthodox patriarch argued.
He also praised Hungary for “consistently aiding Christian communities in need,“ including those persecuted for their faith in Christ.
Orbán pledged Hungary wouldn’t support sanctioning religious leaders as it could also impact the religious freedom of Hungarians, “which is sacred and inviolable,” Havasi explained to reporters.
Earlier, a government official said Hungary rejected sanctions against religious leaders. Tristan Azbej, state secretary for aiding persecuted Christians, told Hungarian television that “counterproductive, nonsensical sanctions are harmful to peace efforts.”
He made clear, however, that Hungary “condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine and supported various sanctions” as long as they don’t target faith communities.
“The Russian Orthodox Church has 160 million believers and 40,000 priests worldwide,” estimated Tristan.
He stressed it would be an “insane” idea to prohibit a patriarch from entering the EU as it would isolate the faithful from their religious leader. “This idea is harmful and does not lead to reconciliation,” Tristan added.
As an EU member, Hungary can veto planned sanctions against the Russian Orthodox patriarch. It has also threatened to halt a planned EU oil embargo against Russia, citing its dependency on Russian energy.
While Moscow praised him for not signing up for the sanctions, critics, including opposition legislators, view Orbán as autocratic and a close ally of President Putin.
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