BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's Christian LGBT community hopes a visit by Pope Francis to Budapest next week can help heal wounds in a deeply divided society amid an intensifying anti-LGBT campaign by the country's deeply conservative government.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a right-wing nationalist in power since 2010, has sought to promote social policies he says safeguard Christian values against Western liberalism. He has targeted gender issues and what he calls LGBT propaganda in his campaign over the past few years, along with migrants.
The pope will make an official visit to Hungary April 28-30 and preside at an open-air Mass in front of parliament overlooking the Danube River in Budapest.
Akos Marco Modolo, 28, a human rights and LGBT activist who is gay and has been a practicing Catholic all his life, said many LGBT people who are also Christian believers feel shame about their identity and "feel God does not love them".
"Luckily, I have never felt that myself. I have always felt God loves me and has no problem with me being gay," he said in a tiny flat he rents in Budapest, a few steps from a red-brick church where he goes to pray.
He said his faith in God helped him overcome hardships when he felt lonely in his former conservative Catholic community in the small farming town of Mezobereny where he grew up.
Modolo, who is Italian on his father's side, realized he was gay at the age of 14 but it took five more years for him to come out, first among friends, then within his family.
He plans to attend the papal Mass on April 30 and hopes Francis' tolerant approach to LGBT and all marginalised people will help bridge a rift in Hungarian society caused by what Modolo called the government's anti-LGBT "hate campaign".
"He is my favourite pope of all ... and his message for me is really heart-warming, not only with respect to the LGBT issue but also on migration," he said, adding that the pope's positive message was much needed in Hungary's polarised society.
Francis has repeatedly said LGBT people must be welcomed by the Roman Catholic Church. He said the Church's catechism, or book of teachings, says same-sex attraction is not a sin though homosexual acts are.
"All persons are the children of God, all persons. God does not reject anybody, God is a father. And I have no right to expel anyone from the Church," Francis has said.
Hungary has never allowed gay marriage but recognises civil unions. Some 56% of Hungarians were found to be accepting of homosexuality in a 2021 survey by the Zavecz Research institute.
During his visit, the 86-year-old Francis will meet Hungary's political leaders, including Orban, as well as diplomats, priests, poor people and refugees.
The European Commission referred Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union in mid-2022 over a law passed in 2021 banning the use of materials seen as promoting homosexuality and gender change in schools.
Touted by the Orban government as protecting children, the law was criticised by human rights groups as anti-LGBT discrimination and labelled a "disgrace" by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The government has said the law was not targeting the LGBT community. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto reiterated that the government "rejects aggressive LGBTQ propaganda" and will protect children at all costs. This is a message that registers well with conservative voters.
(Reporting and writing by Krisztina Than; Editing by Mark Heinrich)