The Vatican has sought to downplay the controversy over the denial of a papal audience to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher both said that Pompeo had requested an audience with Pope Francis, but the Pontiff had declined.
“Yes, he asked. But the Pope had already said clearly that political figures are not received in election periods. That is the reason,” Cardinal Parolin told reporters.
The two also said they were “surprised” Pompeo decided to publish an article criticising the Holy See’s provisional accord with China before his visit.
“We have known for a long time the position of the Trump administration and that of Secretary Pompeo on this subject,” the cardinal said.
Gallagher added: “Normally when you’re preparing these visits between high-level officials, you negotiate the agenda for what you are going to talk about privately, confidentially. It’s one of the rules of diplomacy.”
Pompeo told a religious freedom symposium during his visit that China is the world’s worst persecutor of religious believers and that “nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than it is inside of China today.”
“The United States can and does play its part in speaking up for those oppressed, although we too can do more,” he said.
“But for all that nation-states can do, ultimately, our efforts are constrained by the realities of world politics.”
“The Church is in a different position,” he added. “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.”
Speaking at the event, organised by the US embassy to the Holy See, Pompeo referenced the Chinese martyrs canonised by Pope John Paul II as a “bold moral witness”.
“An increasingly repressive CCP frightened by its own lack of democratic legitimacy works day and night to snuff out the lamp of freedom, especially religious freedom on a horrifying scale,” he added.
“The Chinese Communist Party has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more.”
Pompeo had previously told CNA he wished to meet with Vatican officials to discuss human rights abuses in China.
“We’ve spoken pretty clearly about the human rights situation in China that has deteriorated under General Secretary Xi Jinping for religious believers throughout the country,” he said.
“The Church has an enormous amount of moral authority and we want to encourage them to use that moral authority, to improve the conditions for believers, certainly Catholic believers, but believers of all faiths inside of China, and so that’s the conversation that we’ll have.”