Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in tense visit to Vatican as US presidential vote nears

Mr Pompeo will not meet Pope Francis because the pontiff avoids such audiences in campaign periods. PHOTOS: AFP

ROME (AFP) - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revived a spat with the Vatican on Wednesday (Sept 30) during a visit to Rome, a month ahead of the US presidential elections and hot on the heels of a diplomatic breach that experts see as an effort to win conservative Catholic votes.

Mr Pompeo is not meeting Pope Francis because the pontiff avoids such audiences in campaign periods, a Vatican source said.

Analysts say the Pope has also been angered by Mr Pompeo's public calls for a historic Vatican-China accord to be scrapped.

Instead, Mr Pompeo spoke at a symposium organised by the Holy See's US embassy, where he renewed an appeal for the Vatican to take a stand against China, pushing a religious freedom theme used in President Donald Trump's re-election campaign.

"Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than in China," said Mr Pompeo, an evangelical Christian.

"I call on every faith leader to find the courage to confront religious persecution," he said, insisting that for the Catholic Church, "earthly considerations shouldn't discourage principled stances".

Pope Francis has been working hard to repair ties with China and the Vatican has not appreciated Mr Pompeo's public interference.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See's Secretary for Relations with States, told journalists at the symposium that Mr Pompeo's statement this month had been "received critically".

He said: "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."

Mr Pompeo will meet the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin on Thursday.

Powerful cardinal Oscar Maradiaga said the US intervention was unwelcome, and clearly linked to the US election campaign.

"They're looking for Donald Trump to get elected, and everything is based on that logic. In this sense, I don't think they're acting in the interests of Americans," he said in an interview with the Repubblica daily on the eve of Mr Pompeo's visit.

Pope Francis' opening towards China had particularly angered the "anti-Francis" network close to the US president, he said, led by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican's former envoy to the US, and Mr Steve Bannon, Mr Trump's former adviser.

Professor Massimo Faggioli, a theologian at the Villanova Catholic University in the US, said there was a concerted effort under way to "turn a certain anti-Francis and anti-Vatican sentiment, which has become more visible in recent years, into votes for Trump".

"Vatican diplomacy is being used for propaganda," he said.

According to the Pew Research Centre, around half of Catholic registered voters describe themselves as Republicans or lean towards the Republican Party, while roughly the same identify with or lean towards the Democratic Party.

A "notable majority of white Catholics" voted for Mr Trump last time, Prof Faggioli said, and "the plan is to keep this bloc of white Catholic voters in some states where it is especially needed".

Mr Pompeo is also set to meet Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio on Wednesday to discuss US efforts to deter European allies from using equipment by Chinese manufacturer Huawei in developing their 5G networks.

The US accuses Huawei of being a tool for Chinese espionage.

Italy insists that its Golden Power law - which allows the government to impose conditions, restrictions or a ban on foreign investment in strategic industries - protects it from risk.

Nonetheless, Mr Conte promised last week to take stronger measures to ensure national security in the country's 5G networks.

Talks will likely also touch on Italy's involvement in China's ambitious Belt and Road trade and infrastructure investment plan.

Rome became the first G7 country to sign up to the plan last year, a move sharply criticised by those who fear the investment scheme will allow key trade secrets and technologies to slip into Beijing's hands.

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