US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the Vatican on Wednesday to join the United States in denouncing violations of religious freedom in China, saying the Catholic Church should be at the forefront in the fight to insist on basic human rights there.
Pompeo made the appeal at a conference on religious freedom organised by the US Embassy to the Holy See. It took place at the same time the Vatican is entering into delicate negotiations with Beijing on extending its controversial agreement over bishop nominations.
In the audience was Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister, who didn’t mention China in his remarks. Instead, Gallagher focused on more ideological threats to religious liberty, citing the imposition of gender ideology in the West and other types of “politically correct" legislation that he said were threats to the conscience of religious believers.
Pompeo, echoing the Trump administration's harsh criticism of Beijing that has increased as the US November 3 presidential election nears, said there was nowhere on Earth where religious liberty is more under assault than in China.
“We must support those demanding freedom in our time," Pompeo said. Citing St.John Paul II, retired Pope Benedict XVI and even Pope Francis, Pompeo urged a greater commitment from faith leaders to stand up for all religious believers.
“To be a church ‘permanently in a state of mission' has many meanings," Pompeo said, quoting Francis. “Surely one of them is to be a church permanently in defence of basic human rights."
The Vatican has defended its agreement with China, saying it is purely an ecclesial matter about bishop nominations and is not a political or diplomatic accord. Gallagher said the Holy See, in all its diplomatic dealings, “has stressed the importance of dialogue and mutual respect."
The Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, also spoke in general terms about the Holy See's longstanding defence of religious liberty. But he didn't mention China or any country by name.
Pompeo’s visit to the Vatican has been made fraught by an essay he penned earlier this month in the conservative magazine First Things suggesting that the Vatican had compromised its moral authority by signing the 2018 accord with Beijing.
Asked Wednesday how the Holy See received Pompeo’s essay, Gallagher told reporters: “It was received critically.”
He also said the proximity of Pompeo’s visit to the US election, was “one of the reasons why the Holy Father is not receiving the secretary of state.”
Pompeo, who met with the pope last year when he spoke at a similar conference, instead will meet Thursday with Gallagher and Parolin at the Vatican.
After the conference, Pompeo met with Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, the first Group of Seven leader to sign onto China's infrastructure-building Belt and Road initiative. Conte said at the time of Italy's 2019 signing, which was done over US objections, that it would not put into question Italy's trans-Atlantic partnerships.
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A State Department deputy spokesperson, Cale Brown, said Pompeo raised the issue during his meeting with Conte, and noted the “risks" of doing business with China.