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Vatican irritation as US urges pope to take a harder line on China

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday launched a searing attack on China's record on religious freedom as he renewed an appeal to the Vatican to stop cooperating with Beijing.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday launched a searing attack on China’s record on religious freedom as he renewed an appeal to the Vatican to stop cooperating with Beijing.

However, the Vatican did not seem to appreciate being told what to do.

“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than it is inside of China today,” Pompeo said in a speech at a conference hosted by the US embassy to the Holy See.

He accused the Chinese Communist Party of working “day and night to snuff out the lamp of freedom, especially religious freedom, on a horrifying scale.”

He mentioned the persecution of Muslims, Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, as well as Catholics.

In his words, Chinese Catholics have faced arrest, desecration and destruction of their shrines, and orders to replace pictures of Jesus with pictures of Chairman Mao and President Xi Jinping.

Pompeo held up the example of Bernhard Lichtenberg, a German Catholic priest who supported Jews during the Nazi regime, as he spoke of the moral imperative of defending freedom of faith.

He described the United States as a global leader on this front, but suggested Pope Francis – and leaders of other religions – had a greater responsibility.

“For all that nation states can do, ultimately our efforts are constrained by the realities of world politics. Countries must sometimes make compromises to advance good ends,” Pompeo said.

“The church is in a different position … earthly considerations shouldn’t discourage principled stances based on eternal truths,” the top US diplomat argued.

An envoy of President Donald Trump, Pompeo represents a US administration that has been increasingly hawkish towards Beijing, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the Vatican works differently.

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s de-facto foreign minister, appeared “visibly irritated” after speaking at the same conference as Pompeo, Italian news agency ANSA reported.

He complained about being given “only a few minutes” to speak, and when asked why he did not mention China from the podium, he said not pointing fingers was a “praxis of Vatican diplomacy,” ANSA said.

The unilateral way in which the US embassy event was organized is “precisely one of the reasons why the pope will not meet [Pompeo],” the archbishop added.

The top US diplomat was scheduled on Thursday to meet Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s second-highest official.

It was previously suggested Pompeo was given no papal audience – unlike last year – because Francis did not want to be seen meddling with the looming US presidential election.

Francis and Trump are not natural partners: Before the current White House leader was elected, the pope famously called his plan to build a wall on the Mexico border “not Christian.”

As for Pompeo’s call for no extension of a Vatican-China deal on bishop appointments which expires next month, the Vatican’s official media portal, Vatican News, rebuffed it on Tuesday.

“The results have been positive, although limited, and suggest going forward with the application of the agreement for another determined period of time,” it said in an editorial.

The China-Vatican accord, struck in 2018, marked a historical thaw in relations between the two sides. But critics see it as an unacceptable form of appeasement towards the Chinese regime.

“The Vatican endangers its moral authority, should it renew the deal,” Pompeo tweeted on September 19, arguing that cooperation with Beijing did not mitigate harassment issues for Chinese Catholics.

On Wednesday, Pompeo also met Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.

Italy is one of several European countries the US is warning against allowing Chinese investments in 5G telecommunications networks, out of national security considerations.

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