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Pope turns down Pompeo meeting; Vatican warns US against politicizing China deal

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at Richard Nixon Presidential Library, in Yorba Linda, Calif., on July 23, 2020. (Ron Przysucha/U.S. State Department)
September 30, 2020

Two officials for the Vatican announced Wednesday that Pope Francis had denied U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s request for an audience, and shared concerns Pompeo’s visit would be an effort to get the Vatican to denounce China ahead of a deal between the Vatican and Beijing.

The Vatican’s two top diplomats, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Foreign Minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher told Reuters that Pope Francis had denied the request for a meeting as part of a Vatican policy to avoid meeting politicians ahead of elections. Both officials said they were also surprised by remarks Pompeo made at an event hosted by the U.S. embassy to the Holy See, in which he denounced China’s record on religious freedom ahead of Vatican plans to renew an agreement with Beijing on the selection of Chinese bishops.

Parolin, explaining the decision to deny Pompeo’s meeting request, said, “Yes, [Pompeo] asked. But the pope had already said clearly that political figures are not received in election periods. That is the reason.”

Pompeo was in Rome on Wednesday and reportedly requested to meet Vatican officials on Thursday.

Asked if he believed Pompeo’s recent comments denouncing China were intended to further a political agenda, Parolin told Reuters, “Some have interpreted it this way … that the comments were above all for domestic political use. I don’t have proof of this but certainly, this is one way of looking at it.”

Parolin said the Vatican-China deal “is a matter that has nothing to do with American politics. This is a matter between Churches and should not be used for this type of ends.”

The Vatican-China deal is a two-year-old agreement with Beijing that gives the pope some say over the appointment of Chinese bishops. It is set to expire next month but is likely to be renewed, according to Reuters.

Earlier on Wednesday, Pompeo gave a speech on religious freedom, wherein he noted “Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China.”

Pompeo went on to say, “The Chinese Communist Party has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more. Nor, of course, have Catholics been spared this wave of repression: Catholic churches and shrines have been desecrated and destroyed. Catholic bishops like Augustine Cui Tai have been imprisoned, as have priests in Italy. And Catholic lay leaders in the human rights movement, not least in Hong Kong, have been arrested.”

Pompeo said that the ability of governments to defend religious freedom is sometimes constrained by world politics, but “The Church is in a different position. Earthly considerations shouldn’t discourage principled stances based on eternal truths and as history shows, Catholics have often deployed their principles in glorious, glorious service of human dignity.”

Pompeo, in a press conference later on Wednesday, denied a reporter’s characterization that, in his China criticism, he seemed to be “almost picking a fight with the Vatican over China.”

“Yeah, that’s just crazy,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo said his denouncement of China was in line with the Trump administration’s existing stance on China. Pompeo did say, “We want every institution to use its authority, its power to make the lives for what is the greatest human rights violation ongoing in the world – and we want every institution to use their power.”

Pompeo also said the Catholic Church has the “capacity to influence and make things better for people all across the world” and said “They have historically stood with oppressed peoples all around the world.”