ROME—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched a strong attack on religious persecution in China and called on the Vatican to stand up for religious freedom there, in an implicit criticism of Pope Francis’s rapprochement with Beijing.
“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China,” Mr. Pompeo said in a speech in Rome. He cited China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims and other religious minorities, including Catholics, as well as the crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. “We must support those demanding freedom in our time.”
Mr. Pompeo, who was addressing a conference on religious freedom organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican, invoked the courage of Pope John Paul II in opposing Soviet Communism.
“May the church, and all those who know that we are ultimately accountable to God, be so bold in our time,” Mr. Pompeo said. In an apparent reference to the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts toward Beijing, he added: “Earthly considerations shouldn’t discourage principled stances based on eternal truths.”
China has become the strongest source of tension between Washington and the Holy See since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Pope John Paul II opposed. The U.S. administration has been critical of the Vatican’s cooperation deal with China, signed in 2018, which Pope Francis is seeking to renew.
The agreement, the details of which aren’t public, gives both Beijing and the Vatican a say in appointing Catholic bishops in China. Critics say the deal has helped Beijing to bring the “underground” or unofficial Catholic church in China under greater government control. Chinese Catholics have for decades been split between underground and government-approved churches.
A senior Vatican official expressed irritation with Mr. Pompeo’s suggestion that the Holy See hadn’t been standing up for religious freedom in China.
“We speak about religious freedom to China all the time, but we do so in our own way,” the official said. He suggested that Mr. Pompeo’s speech was motivated by U.S. domestic politics: “He is clearly exploiting the issue of religious freedom in view of the election in November.”
Mr. Pompeo told reporters later Wednesday that his stance was unrelated to the election and was the longstanding policy of the Trump administration.
He explicitly attacked the Vatican-China agreement in an article published earlier in September in First Things, a conservative religious magazine, saying that the deal hadn’t protected Catholics’ religious freedom and warning that a renewal of the pact could jeopardize the Holy See’s moral authority.
Senior Vatican officials expressed surprise about the article, with one likening it to a foul in soccer. Vatican officials argue that Beijing has, for the first time, recognized the pope’s authority as head of the Catholic Church in China, but concede that progress on Catholics’s religious freedom has been disappointing.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong and a prominent critic of the Vatican’s agreement with China, spent five days in Rome last week trying unsuccessfully to meet Pope Francis to dissuade him from renewing the deal.
“I came to make one last effort to tell the Holy Father to put religious considerations over political considerations,” Cardinal Zen told The Wall Street Journal. He said he feared the deal had already allowed Beijing to expand its control over Catholics.
“The church is already in the hands of the government,” he said. “They’ve already killed the church.”
Mr. Pompeo’s speech Wednesday addressed an audience including Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister. When leaving the event, Archbishop Gallagher told reporters that the timing of Mr. Pompeo’s visit, shortly before the presidential election, was one of the reasons why Pope Francis wouldn’t be meeting him.
The pope usually avoids meeting with political figures during campaign season, to avoid appearing to take sides. Mr. Pompeo met the pope during a visit to Rome last year. He is scheduled to meet Thursday with Archbishop Gallagher and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who as secretary of state is the highest Vatican official under the pope.
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