ROME – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not get his meeting with Pope Francis, but he said he did have very constructive talks with the Vatican secretary of state and some other high-level prelates on Thursday -- less than two weeks after he criticized plans for the Vatican to renew an agreement with China regarding church operations.
Pompeo spoke favorably about the meeting in an interview with Fox News, and the Vatican also put out positive comments about the tone of the meeting.
But, there had been some controversy ahead of his visit. One longtime Rome journalist told Fox News he didn’t recall witnessing such a rift between the United States and the Holy See in at least the past 20 years.
Ahead of his arrival in Italy, Pompeo wrote an article and tweeted criticism and concern about the Vatican renewing the accord with China. Many analysts saw it as a sellout to the Communist Party, while others considered it the only way to engage the Chinese Catholic Church and keep it from being totally underground. Those outside Vatican walls aren’t privy to details of the deal, but it’s understood that while it would give the Vatican say over the appointment of bishops in China, it has not stopped the persecution of Catholics there.
Some in the Vatican expressed that they were miffed Pompeo aired these concerns publicly rather than behind closed doors with them. But, Pompeo told Fox News speaking out about such issues was consistent with the Trump administration’s position that any encroachment on religious freedoms anywhere needed to go under the spotlight.
“This is something the American demand their leaders speak up about, and that’s what I was doing,” Pompeo said to Fox News. “I was honoring the Catholic Church’s power, its capacity for moral good around the world. I believe that deeply, and we urge them to continue to use their persuasive power, their ability to affect the hearts and minds of people all across the world to improve the lives of people who are in very difficult situations around the world, including inside of China.”
There was speculation the Pope didn’t receive Pompeo in part because of perceived meddling in an ecclesiastical affair. But, the Vatican has said it was about elections. Pope Francis, it is said, would not want to be seen as a prop in a heated election campaign.
Pompeo, for his part, took that in stride. “You know, he’s a busy man. We scheduled this a little bit late. He doesn’t always meet with foreign ministers, too. They’ve made clear, on my next trip, we’ll be able to do it.”
Meanwhile, China, whether its oppression of Catholics or Uyghurs, is never far from the secretary’s mind. Fox News asked what he considered the No. 1 threat Beijing posed to the United States.
“When you stare at the capacity and the actions General Secretary Xi Jinping has taken all around the world, you come to understand the nature of authoritarian regimes. The world knows these systems well, the harm they inflict on basic human dignity, the security risks that come from unstable nations. And, when you have this much effort to exert this much political control inside of your own country, it bleeds over.”
Iran has been another focus of foreign policy under the Trump administration.
Fox News asked about the much-touted “maximum pressure” campaign meant to squeeze Iran into changing its tactics. Still, the Tehran government has remained intact, it has not come to the negotiating table and it has accelerated its nuclear activity since the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord.
Pompeo said, “I remember it would only have been a couple months ago, reporters would have asked, well, you haven’t made any progress on normalization with Israel either. These things only happen the day they happen, and it’s true. The Islamic Republic of Iran continues its terror campaign around the world and continues all the efforts it had in its nuclear program. The wrong way to approach it was to appease, to give them money to give them wealth, to create opportunities for them to build out their terror campaign around the world. We stopped that.”
Washington Post and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder in Istanbul was two years ago Friday. There remained no definitive conclusion about who ordered it.
“President Trump made clear from the beginning this was a horrific murder, that was tragic. We’ve demanded Saudi Arabia take action against those who perpetrated it. There are those now in prison as a result of having engaged in this. We want to make sure that their investigation is full, complete, thorough and gets to the bottom of this as well. We’ve been assured that they will and continue to press that issue with them,” Pompeo said.
Another issue of freedom and dignity: the situation in Belarus, whose people have been demonstrating consistently for nearly two months, demanding the resignation of longstanding leader Alexander Lukashenko. Pompeo said the U.S. wanted to support the aspirations of the people on the streets.
“We’ve been very supportive. We declared that election was a fraud within days of the election’s conclusion," the secretary of state said. "We’ve opposed the fact that he’s now inaugurated himself. We know what the people of Belarus want. They want something different. They want freedom. They want to turn towards a different direction that President Lukashenko has not given them. And, we’re going to be alongside them to try help them, support them, use our diplomatic capabilities to give them a better path forward.”