ROME – U.S. 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 organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, with top Vatican officials in the audience. It took place at the same time the Vatican is entering into delicate negotiations with Beijing on extending their controversial agreement on nominating bishops for China.
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, Cardinal Pietro 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.
Neither Parolin nor Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister, mentioned China in their official remarks to the conference, which was held in a hotel reception room near the U.S. Embassy. Both focused instead on the Holy See’s longstanding history of promoting religious freedom as a fundamental human right.
“The question of protecting religious freedom so as to allow the local Catholic Church to exercise its mission remains an indispensable part of the scope and activity of the Holy See,” Gallagher said, criticizing “ideological” threats to religious freedom, such as legislation in some Western nations that redefines traditional concepts of gender.
In his remarks, Pompeo echoed the Trump administration’s harsh criticism of Beijing, which increased after the coronavirus was first detected in China, and as the U.S. Nov. 3 presidential election neared.
“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China,” Pompeo said, accusing the ruling Communist Party of working “day and night to snuff out the lamp of freedom, especially religious freedom, on a horrifying scale.”
Quoting St. John Paul II, retired Pope Benedict XVI and 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. Surely one of them is to be a church permanently in defense of basic human rights,” he said, quoting a phrase Francis commonly uses.
In his essay published in the conservative magazine “First Things,” Pompeo said the Vatican-China accord hadn’t shielded Catholics from China’s religious crackdown and suggested that the Vatican had compromised its moral authority by signing it.
“We want every institution to use their power. I happen to think that churches, and the Catholic Church included, have enormous capacity,” Pompeo said Wednesday in defending the essay. “They have historically stood with oppressed peoples all around the world.”
The Vatican has defended its accord with China, saying it was purely an ecclesial matter about bishop nominations and was not a political or diplomatic agreement. The Vatican has said the agreement had borne “limited” but positive fruit and was worth extending for another determined period of time.
Critics, including the retired Hong Kong archbishop, have said the Vatican sold out China's underground Catholics, who for decades remained loyal to Rome, often at great personal cost. More sympathetic China watchers say at most the agreement has prevented an irrevocable schism in China by creating a mechanism through which bishops can be named through a process of dialogue.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. objections, that it would not put into question Italy’s trans-Atlantic partnerships.
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.