US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged the Vatican to ramp up its opposition to governments abusing religious freedom, as he sought allies for the administration’s push against China.
Shortly after landing in Rome on the first day of a two-day visit, Pompeo lost no time in pointing the finger at China, as the Vatican prepares to renew a historic deal on the appointment of bishops in the Asian country.
“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than it is inside of China today,” Pompeo told a conference organised by the US embassy to the Holy See. “As with all communist regimes, the Chinese Communist Party deems itself the ultimate moral authority.”
President Donald Trump’s administration has opened a religious front in its campaign to pressure China, picking on the accord over bishops.
The Vatican is close to extending the 2018 agreement, as the two states inch towards restoring diplomatic relations after almost 70 years, Bloomberg News reported on September 9.
“The Vatican endangers its moral authority should it renew the deal,” Pompeo tweeted on September 19. He also published a critique of the agreement in a religious magazine.
Pompeo will not meet Pope Francis when he visits the Vatican on Thursday, holding talks instead with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states.
Pompeo’s team had initially raised the possibility of an audience with Francis. The pope does not usually grant meetings to government leaders or politicians close to elections, according to Vatican officials who asked not to be named discussing confidential talks.
Pompeo did not refer to the accord with China at the Rome conference, where both Parolin and Gallagher were in attendance. He listed attacks on religious freedom across the globe, noting cases in China, and called for “a Church permanently in defense of basic human rights” and “permanently opposed to tyrannical regimes.”
Gallagher, who told Italian news agency Ansa that the conference was an attempt to exploit the pope’s influence ahead of the November 4 vote in the US, said in Rome that “the protection and promotion of religious liberty is one of the main political priorities of the Holy See.”
On the eve of his arrival, Pompeo’s lobbying triggered a rare and brusque rebuttal from a close adviser to Francis, who urged the US secretary of state to stop electioneering and stay out of Vatican affairs.
“It seems to me that the current American leadership is acting only with a view to the next elections,” Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, who coordinates a papal commission on Church reform, told daily la Repubblica. “They must not interfere in our relations with China.”
Relations between the Vatican and China were broken off in 1951, and reaching a settlement with the Communist Party has proved elusive, especially as President Xi Jinping presides over the most widespread crackdown on religious freedom since it was written into the country’s constitution in 1982.
China’s ultimate goal would be for the Vatican to cut ties with Taiwan, which China regards as a part of its territory. For its part, the Vatican seeks more protection and a degree of legitimacy for an estimated 12 million Catholics in China who have been divided for decades between a state-run authority where the government names the bishops and an “underground” church loyal to the pope.