ROME (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vatican officials discussed religious freedom and their differences over China on Thursday, a day after tensions over the Holy See’s outreach to Beijing spilled out in public.
Pompeo spent 45 minutes in the Apostolic Palace with his Vatican counterpart, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said both sides “presented their respective positions” about relations with China in a climate of “respect, openness and cordiality.”
The State Department’s deputy spokesperson, Cale Brown, said the men “discussed the importance of defending religious freedom and other human rights issues, and expressed particular concern about the situation in China.”
Pompeo was in Rome to participate in a conference on religious freedom organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, and to meet with Italian and Vatican officials.
The Vatican declined Pompeo’s request to see Pope Francis, citing Holy See policy to not grant papal audiences during election campaigns, Parolin said. Pompeo met with Francis last October, and it would have been unusual for him to have gotten another audience so soon, even without an impending election.
During the Wednesday conference, Pompeo urged the Holy See to join the United States in denouncing violations of religious freedom in China, part of the U.S. campaign to criticize Beijing’s crackdown on religious and ethnic minorities. The criticism has accelerated amid the coronavirus pandemic and before the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.
The conference was held at the same time the Vatican is entering into delicate negotiations with Beijing on extending their controversial 2018 agreement on nominating bishops for China.
The Vatican is seeking to extend the accord, which envisages a process of dialogue in selecting bishops. It signed it in 2018 in hopes it would help unite China’s Catholics, who for seven decades have been split between those belonging to an official, state-sanctioned church and an underground church loyal to Rome.
As it has been accused of selling out the underground faithful with the agreement, the Vatican has defended the accord as necessary to prevent an even worse schism in the Chinese church.
Pompeo has strongly criticized the accord, penning an essay earlier this month suggesting that the Vatican had compromised its moral authority by signing it. His article greatly irritated the Vatican, which saw it as interference in the church’s internal affairs for the sake of scoring domestic political points.
The Vatican secretary of state, Parolin, said the Holy See was “surprised” by Pompeo’s article. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the conference, Parolin said the private meetings Pompeo had scheduled at the Vatican would have been the more appropriate setting to express his concerns, Italian news agency ANSA reported.
Pompeo started his day Thursday visiting the Rome-based Sant’Egidio Community, a Catholic charity active in caring for refugees in Italy and providing HIV-AIDS care in Africa. Arriving at Sant’Egidio’s headquarters, Pompeo praised the group’s efforts as “the Lord’s work.”