The Vatican denied U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s request for an audience with Pope Francis this week, saying the pope would not see Pompeo in the midst of the American presidential campaign.
“Yes, he asked,” Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told The Associated Press as Pompeo is in Europe for a weeklong visit. “But the pope had already said clearly that political figures are not received in election periods. That is the reason.”
Pompeo will still meet with Parolin and other top Vatican officials during the visit, but the pope’s rebuff was seen by some as the latest example of a political rift between the United States and the Vatican. During a religious freedom conference this week, Pompeo issued a strong denouncement of a deal the Catholic Church signed two years ago with China related to the appointment of bishops, which it is considering extending.
President Donald Trump has taken a hard line against China, as has Pompeo, in the leadup to the U.S. election in November. The secretary of state has also taken unusual efforts to use his political authority to promote religious freedom.
“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China,” Pompeo said at the event Wednesday. He later added that Beijing’s Communist Party was working “day and night to snuff out the lamp of freedom, especially religious freedom, on a horrifying scale.”
Pompeo rejected claims that he was using his visit to the Vatican to drum up support for Trump ahead of the election, telling The New York Times the assertion was “just crazy.”
“We’ve been working on human rights in China the entire time I’ve been part of this administration,” he told the newspaper.
Reuters notes that Parolin and Foreign Minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher said they were “surprised” at Pompeo’s public statements, saying he had violated “one of the rules of diplomacy.”
“Normally when you’re preparing these visits between high-level officials, you negotiate the agenda for what you are going to talk about privately, confidentially,” Gallagher told the publication.
Pompeo wrote an article about the issue earlier this month, chastising the Vatican for signing the deal and saying Catholics were under assault in China. The AP notes the statements irked the Catholic Church and that the Vatican saw the effort as an attempt to win political points back in the U.S.
The @StateDept has been a strong voice for religious freedom in China and around the world and has taken steps to hold those who abuse the faithful responsible. We will continue to do so and stand with China's Catholics and religious believers. We call on the Vatican to join us.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) September 19, 2020
“Two years ago, the Holy See reached an agreement with the Chinese Communist Party, hoping to help China’s Catholics,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter. “Yet the CCP’s abuse of the faithful has only gotten worse. The Vatican endangers its moral authority, should it renew the deal.”
The Vatican has defended the deal with China. Parolin told Reuters that while it’s not perfect, it “is a matter that has nothing to do with American politics.”
“This is a matter between churches and should not be used for this type of ends,” Parolin said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.