Mr Habsburg, why are countries still sending ambassadors to the Vatican at all? This seems inappropriate in times when the importance of religion within society is constantly decreasing.

First of all, I believe that people are hopelessly religious, as a great philosopher once said. And I believe that people can’t turn their back on religion, even if in Europe – especially in public places – religion seems to be on a downward course. Actually, I am not an ambassador for Vatican but rather for the Holy See. And – this has to be added – also for the Order of Malta, which is particularly interesting for Hungary, since the Order of Malta is incredibly active in this country. On the other hand, the Holy See is not only a small state in the middle of Rome with a wall around it, in which a couple hundred people are working. The Holy See is actually the government of an organisation to which 1.2 billion people belong all around the globe, and which is headed by the Holy Father himself. Being in conversation with someone like that is very, very interesting.

What are your responsibilities as an ambassador?

My most important task is to maintain the relationship between the Hungarian State and the Holy See. This means first of all building a network of relationships so that – in case the situation gets worse at any time – you know each other, you know about each other, you have met often and therefore it’s easy for you to talk to each other. The second task is for sure to deliver news to my own country about what is happening about here. The church is indeed present in – almost – every country all around the world. Even down to the countless little villages. The environment around the Holy See is a really special source of information. A third task is – and for me this is the most important task for the moment – to let people know about Hungary. It should not be a surprise if I tell you that at the moment you will get a lot of attention in Europe when you say that you are working as a Hungarian ambassador. This is also your chance, however. The ambassadors here are all very well-educated, value-oriented and sophisticated people who are interested in political discussions. So I have an unbelievably exciting network here, where I am able to explain, represent and make popular the Hungarian position, culture and interests, and of course also controversial topics such as the issue of refugees. It sure helps that I have been working for five years in the media. As the media consultant of a Catholic bishop I have had the experience how to communicate controversial positions to a critical audience.

You have already met Pope Francis, when he received your Letter of Credence on December 7. How was the ceremony?

You are led to the Pope’s quarters and then you hand him this huge, cream-coloured envelope. They take it and then you have a few moments alone with him. You introduce your family and your closest colleagues. I took it as a special appreciation for Hungary that I could spend 18 minutes with the Pope. They told me that ambassadors usually receive no more than five minutes with him. Of course I was nervous as hell to be meeting such an impressive person. I asked him whether he has already been to Hungary. He said no but he still knew everything about Hungary. In Buenos Aires he used to accompany an English Miss [the female order of Congregatio Jesu] who fled from Hungary in the 1950s. He said: “I have learned everything from her about Hungary, everything important: culture, food and first of all I have learned what the most holy and most important symbol of Hungary is.” I thought that he was probably talking about St. Stephen’s crown but he only laughed heartily and said: “The Tokaji wine!” Anyway, he got to know this Hungarian Miss as a brave and upright woman, and this still leaves its mark on his impression of Hungary.

The Hungarian church celebrates “Martin’s Year” in 2016 to commemorate the birth of Saint Martin in Szombathely 1700 years ago. The Hungarian Bishops Conference invited Pope Francis to visit Hungary on this occasion. Will he come?

I have of course approached him with the question that he hopefully knows about this invitation. He immediately clarified that he knows it very well that he is invited. Every Hungarian person who he meets reminds him about it. But he also remarked that he is 79 years old, he is slowly growing old and he does not manage to accomplish everything that he plans. First of all, since he already has a couple of trips planned for this year, among others one to Mexico. He already refused a few travels within Italy. And this way he left the question open whether he will be coming or not.

Have you also spoken to Pope Francis about the refugee crisis?

No. The Pope would like to get to know the person who has arrived there as an ambassador. After that you lead the actual conversations with the Cardinal Secretary, Pietro Parolin. I have also discussed the refugee issue with him. We both agreed that this is a European problem. Europe needs to find a common approach with which it’s going to handle this challenge. This did not happen as of yet. Until that happens, Hungary did what was required according to

the Schengen and Dublin agreement, and tried to bring a certain order

to this stream of people. As much as it was possible. Until this common

European approach is found, individual countries should not be

condemned for how they handle this flood of refugees. Here I met this

opinion, which shows a lot of empathy. I have noticed that Pope Francis

said twice last summer that “Building fences against refugees is bad”.

He did not say that any more later on, actually his next message on the

issue was that refugees have to respect the values of those countries

where they arrive to. I believe that the Pope has a very detailed

picture of the situation and he is constantly developing his position on

the subject.

What would you tell the Pope if he asked you about the role of religion within Hungarian society?

I have met many devout Christians in the Hungarian government who come from a Christian background and sometimes mention God in their speeches and do not try to keep it secret. I am not used to that based on my experience in other European countries

Journalist Jakob Augstein openly discussed in “Spiegel” whether it was a mistake to admit Poland and Hungary into the European Union. There is a cultural war going on between the East and the West, where the “Western values such as liberalism, tolerance, equality stand against Eastern lack of values – racism, ignorance, bigotry.” Do you experience such a cultural war?

I firmly believe in Project Europe. I am also very optimistic concerning the long run. Simply because there is no other alternative. I can say that, being a Habsburg. The Danube Monarchy was also an attempt to create a society of different states against the emerging nationalism, which respect each other’s values. In this respect, my belief in Europe is perhaps something like a family tradition. Of course, at the moment Europe is under an eerie pressure due to the refugee crisis and the fear of terrorism. And just as in every family, lifestyles are a bit different everywhere. This is part of a large family but I believe that Europe is going to survive it. Perhaps we will have to support each other locally. However, that’s a good thing. In my family there are siblings who like to play football together and others who prefer to draw together. I think that the fact the V4 are talking is a good thing, and this is not a reason why I would divide Europe into eastern and western parts.

Isn’t it precisely the different roles of religion that are pulling East and West even further apart?

Some European countries – primarily the ones north of the Alps – are trying to crowd out religion more and more from public spaces. They are giving in more and more to the idea that people should be purely secular, this is why they are sometimes completely overwhelmed when a very religious group suddenly appears in the open, whether it’s the resolute Christians in Central and Eastern Europe or the Moslems in their own countries. However, you can’t exclude religion from Europe, also as you can’t exclude religion from the public spaces. Of course, I support the clear division of church and state but religion is not the same for me as freedom of religion. It’s more about freely being able to practise your religion that you choose. When you are an atheist, or agnostic, a free thinker or sceptic, you should be able to do so – I support that with all my heart – but you can’t expect not to be confronted with religion at all. In this respect it’s true that some countries within Central and Eastern Europe have a more relaxed approach towards religion in public space.

Wouldn’t that be a good chance for the integration of Moslems?

If I may take a look into the future: the central problem for the next years is going to be integration. This is also the message that Monsignor Gallagher, the “Minister of Foreign Affairs” in the Vatican delivered to we ambassadors. According to him there is hardly a country in Europe where the integration of Moslems happened in a satisfactory way. Pretty harsh words. Our problem at first is not the many hundred thousand migrants who are streaming into Europe; much more the phenomenon of second- or third-generation Moslems, who are being radicalised at the moment. Europe does not have the answer to that as of yet. I wish there was more effort and creativity put into finding a solution.

Eduard Karl Joseph Michael Marcus Antonius Koloman Volkhold Maria Habsburg-Lothringen was born in Munich in 1967. He is the great-great-great-grandson of the famous Emperor Franz Joseph and Elisabeth (Sisi), but from the Hungarian branch of the family, who have been living in Hungary since the 18th century. He is married with six children. He studied theology and philosophy in Eichstätt, Germany, and received his doctorate with his thesis about neo-Thomism. He is the author of several books and television series, and worked for five years as the media advisor for Bishop Klaus Küng of St. Pölten, Austria.

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