US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Monday to Vatican leaders about ways forward in crisis-torn Venezuela as he became the most senior official under US President Joe Biden to meet Pope Francis.
Blinken's private, 40-minute audience with the Argentine pope came as some US bishops are pressuring Biden, a devout Catholic, over his support for abortion rights.
"The meeting was extremely warm and very wide-ranging," Blinken told reporters afterwards.
Blinken said he spoke to the pope about climate change, refugees and "more broadly, perhaps most important of all, his leadership on the basic proposition that we have to stand for human dignity in everything we do."
The US State Department said Blinken also spoke to the pontiff about the hotspots of Venezuela, Syria, Lebanon and Ethiopia.
In a separate meeting with Vatican leaders including Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who handles foreign relations, Blinken "reiterated US support for a return to democracy in Venezuela and our desire to help the Venezuelan people rebuild their country," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
The Church plays a key role in Venezuela, where the Biden administration has taken a more low-key diplomatic approach to that of Donald Trump.
The former president imposed sweeping sanctions and threatened force to depose President Nicolás Maduro, who presides over a crumbling economy.
The Biden administration has kept Trump's stance that Maduro is illegitimate and still backs opposition leader Juan Guaidó, but has said it will emphasise cooperation with allies over further ramping up of economic pressure.
The Church played a behind-the-scenes role to support former president Barack Obama, under whom Biden was vice-president, when he moved to ease decades of hostility with Cuba.
Biden has common ground with Francis, the first pope from the Americas as well as from the Jesuit order, on priorities such as fighting climate change and showing more compassion to refugees.
Blinken also spoke to the Vatican about "human rights and religious freedom" in China, Price said.
Blinken's predecessor Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Protestant, took the unusual step of openly criticising the Vatican over a 2018 agreement with China that gave the officially atheist state some say in choosing bishops.
The pope last year declined to meet Pompeo, concerned about being seen as showing support close to an election, although he met him in 2019.
Blinken, a secular Jew, was escorted through the Sistine Chapel by a guide who offered a description of each fresco, stopping to admire the works of art.
"The spiritual atmosphere, the divine art, and the impressive architecture left me speechless. Truly stunning," Blinken wrote on Twitter.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the pope's meeting with Blinken took place in a "friendly atmosphere," adding that the pontiff expressed "his affection and attention to the people of the United States" and recalled his 2015 visit there.
Francis has previously spoken by telephone with Biden, who is the second Catholic US president and attends Mass at least once a week. The pope met the US' special climate envoy, John Kerry, in May.
Biden this month came under pressure from US bishops who agreed to draft a statement that could potentially deny the holy communion – one of the most sacred rituals in the Church – to any US leader who supports abortion rights.
Biden says he personally opposes abortion but, like most of his Democratic Party, supports the right to choose guaranteed in a 1973 Supreme Court decision that remains deeply divisive in US politics.
by Shaun Tandon, AFP