ROME – The U.S. and the Vatican butted heads over China on Thursday as the Holy See chafed at U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s public call to take a harsher stance against Chinese restrictions on religious freedom.
The State Department sought to play down the differences, but tensions were palpable during Pompeo’s two-day visit to Rome. The disagreement on China comes as the Vatican is heading into delicate negotiations with Beijing to extend its controversial 2018 accord over bishop nominations.
Pompeo spent about 45 minutes Thursday meeting in the Apostolic Palace with his Vatican counterpart, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
“We had a constructive discussion,” Pompeo said after the meeting, "We have a shared objective. The Chinese Communist Party is behaving in ways that are reminiscent of what’s only happened in centuries past in terms of human rights violations. We’ve watched them oppress not only Muslim Uighurs but Christians, Catholics, Falun Gong, people of all faiths.
“I know that the Catholic Church, the Vatican, the Holy See all care about these issues deeply,” Pompeo told Fox News in an interview. “We’ve urged them to take a stronger view, to express their moral witness against these depredations that are taking place there in China.”
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said that during the meeting, both sides “presented their respective positions” about relations with China in a climate of “respect, openness and cordiality.” Pope Francis declined to meet with Pompeo, to avoid any suggestion of political favoritism ahead of November’s U.S. presidential election, Vatican officials 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.
In the Fox interview, Pompeo said he wasn't troubled by the lack of a meeting with the pontiff. “Oh, he’s a busy man," Pompeo said. “We scheduled this a little bit late. He doesn’t always meet with foreign ministers too. They’ve made clear on my next trip we’ll be able to do it, and I’m hopeful I’ll get back before too long and have a chance to engage with him.”
Pompeo’s visit got off on a sour note, as far as the Vatican was concerned, after he penned an essay last month for a conservative magazine suggesting that the Vatican had compromised its moral authority by signing the 2018 nominations agreement with Beijing.