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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Rome this week, but Pope Francis refused to meet with him, reportedly because the Vatican thought a meeting would be used to help President Donald Trump’s re-election effort.
Pompeo was in Rome to attend a symposium on “international religious freedom” hosted by Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich. But unlike last October, when Pompeo met with the Pope as impeachment hearings for Trump were underway in D.C., an audience with the pope wasn’t on the schedule.
When Italian news agency ANSA asked Bishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, earlier this week if the reason for the pope turning down a meeting with Pompeo “amounted to exploitation of the pope in the final stages of the U.S. presidential campaign,” Gallagher responded: “Yes, that is precisely why the pope will not meet American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.”
Before and after the nomination of appellate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the Trump campaign and right-wing media has charged that criticisms of Barrett’s religious views on abortion and LGBTQ rights is tantamount to anti-Catholicism. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, is a lifelong Catholic.
The State Department brushed off the snub in an email to VICE News.
“Secretary Pompeo has a number of high-level meetings scheduled during his travel to Rome, including with Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher in Vatican City,” a State Department spokesperson said. “The Secretary met with Pope Francis during his last visit to the Vatican in 2019.”
The Vatican didn’t issue a statement after Pompeo’s meeting then, but the meeting "reaffirmed the United States and Holy See commitment to advancing religious freedom around the world, and in particular, protecting Christian communities in the Middle East," State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said at the time.
While there’s been some coordination between the Vatican and the U.S. on the Middle East, they’ve diverged sharply in their approach to China. As part of a warming of relations in recent years after China and the Holy See severed ties in 1951, the two countries signed a provisional agreement in 2018 and renewed it this year.
In particular, the pope was reportedly frustrated by an op-ed written by Pompeo in the conservative Catholic magazine First Things earlier this month, according to the AP. That op-ed called on Pope Francis and the Vatican to use the Church’s “moral witness” and condemn alleged suppression of Catholics in China.
“The Holy See has a unique capacity and duty to focus the world’s attention on human rights violations, especially those perpetrated by totalitarian regimes like Beijing’s,” Pompeo wrote. “What the Church teaches the world about religious freedom and solidarity should now be forcefully and persistently conveyed by the Vatican in the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s relentless efforts to bend all religious communities to the will of the Party and its totalitarian program.”
At the symposium on Wednesday, Pompeo continued to attack China and take shots at the Vatican for not condemning China more forcefully.
“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China,” he said.
“To be a church ‘permanently in a state of mission’ has many meanings,” Pompeo added, quoting Pope Francis. “Surely one of them is to be a church permanently in defense of basic human rights.”