The Trump administration has doubled down on its criticism of a contentious accord that the Vatican intends to renew with China regarding the Communist regime’s treatment of Chinese Catholics.
Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, flew to Rome on Wednesday as part of a European tour and within hours of landing renewed his claim that the Holy See was too soft on Beijing.
He called on the Vatican not to renew the agreement with China, which was signed two years ago and which gives Beijing a say in the appointment of bishops in the official Chinese Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church in China is split in two – one part is backed by the Communist regime while the other is an unofficial, underground church which is loyal to the Pope and has suffered decades of intimidation and persecution.
“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China,” Mr Pompeo said during a symposium on religious freedom in Rome, shortly after he arrived from a visit to Greece.
“I call on every faith leader to find the courage to confront religious persecution,” he said.
The rebuke followed comments he made earlier this month in which he warned that the Holy See was in danger of losing its “moral authority” if it renewed the deal.
The harsh criticism was in part a reflection of rising tensions between the US and China, but also an attempt to appeal to conservative Catholics voters at home, just weeks before the US election, analysts said.
Pope Francis chose not to meet Mr Pompeo – partly because the election is so close and he did not want to be seen to be partisan, but also because the American criticism clearly annoyed the Holy See.
Mr Pompeo’s remarks were all the more pointed because they came just a day after the Vatican insisted that the accord with Beijing was bearing fruit.
The Vatican put out an editorial in which it insisted that the results of the accord since it was signed in 2018 “have been positive, although limited”.
It quoted the Vatican Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, who said recently that “it seems to me that a direction has been marked out that is worth continuing.”
Mr Pompeo’s forthright remarks were received poorly in Rome, with senior Vatican figures accusing him of trying to make political capital out of the row in order to improve Donald Trump’s chances of being re-elected.
“Normally when you are preparing these visits between high level officials, you negotiate the agenda of what you are going to talk about privately, confidentially. It’s one of the rules of diplomacy,” said Paul Gallagher, the British archbishop who is the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, or foreign minister.
Oscar Maradiaga, a prominent cardinal from Honduras, said the criticism by the US administration was linked to the election on Nov 3.
“They’re looking for Donald Trump to get elected, and everything is based on that logic,” he told La Repubblica newspaper.
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