ROME – On the heels of publicly suggesting the Vatican and Pope Francis risk losing moral authority for not challenging China on religious freedom in a recent article in the journal First Things, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Rome Wednesday and urged religious leaders to “bold moral witness” on religious freedom.

Pompeo specifically mentioned China in his Wednesday address, saying “nowhere is religious freedom under assault more today” than in China.

As Pompeo spoke, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, effectively the Vatican’s Foreign Minister, was in the front row of a symposium devoted to diplomacy and religious freedom organized by the US Embassy to the Holy See. Later, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, closed the event.

In his opening speech, Gallagher appeared to defend the Vatican’s non-confrontational line on China, saying “pulling away from discussion” over religious freedom would be a disservice both to victims and to “those who disagree with us.”

Indirectly, he insisted the Vatican isn’t turning a blind eye to China or anyone else.

“The Vatican is assiduously and constantly attentive to violations of religious liberty,” he said. “We will continue to use the diplomatic tools at our disposal.”

Gallagher also voiced concern over more subtle forms of persecution in Western nations under the guise of “new rights” supposedly aimed at non-discrimination, including at the level of the United Nations.

Pompeo opened the Sept. 30 event by calling on faith leaders, and the Catholic Church in particular, to exercise a “moral witness” in defending religious freedom from “tyrannical regimes” such as the Chinese Communist Party, or extremist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram.

He praised the example of St. John Paul II for his role in ending communism in Europe, saying the late Polish pope “challenged tyranny, and by doing so, demonstrated how the Church can move the world in a more human direction.”

“May we all be so bold in our time,” he said, arguing that to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, as the bible urges, “means exercising a bold moral witness.”

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich opened the event, insisting that religious freedom is “is a national security imperative.”

There “has never been a more important time to protect and defend religious freedom,” she said, pointing to various contexts of religious persecution around the world, including Rohingya Muslims in Burma, Christians in Nicaragua and Nigeria, Muslims and non-Muslims in Saudia Arabia, and the persecution of Uighur Muslims and other groups in China.

Panelists for the event included U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, Samuel Brownback; Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, head of the Islam desk at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; and Nathan Sales, acting undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights in the U.S. State department.

Others included Giampietro Silvestri, secretary general of the AVSI Foundation; Marcela Szymanski of Aid to the Church in Need; and Rehman Chishti, a member of parliament for the United Kingdom.

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Though he was not quite as forceful Wednesday as in his First Things article, Pompeo in his remarks said protecting human dignity and religious freedom is “at the heart” of U.S. foreign policy, and highlighted China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslim population, including detainment in internment camps and forced abortions and sterilizations, as examples to condemn.

“They aren’t the only ones…the Chinese Communist Party has battered every religious denomination in China,” he said, noting that Catholics themselves “have not been spared this wave of oppression,” and cited church demolitions, arrests of priests and bishops, and the detainment of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

More must be done to “shine a light” on these and other examples of persecution, he said, insisting that the Catholic Church is in a unique position to take the lead on this issue, as most government leaders come and go, but “the Church is in a different position.”

Pompeo also noted this week marks the 20th anniversary of when John Paul II canonized 123 Chinese martyrs who died for their faith,” saying they preceded many other “brave men and women all over the world” who take risks for their faith “because their conscience demands it.”

Gallagher said that in recent decades, there has been a “growing recognition of the important role religion play in questions of international peace and security.” Respect for religious freedom, he said, “is a sine qua non” in terms of promoting “the common good of humanity.”

Gallagher said the Holy See is also increasingly concerned about trends such as the “so-called ‘new rights’” which limit religious freedom in the public and private spheres.

Specifically, he mentioned the “ever-more common tendency, mostly found in the west, of legislation which conflicts with the exercise of religion…not only coming in the form of physical persecution, but ever-more ideological trends called political correctness,” which “in the name of tolerance and discrimination” make it easy to accuse those “who don’t accept their positions.”

In reality, those who invoke these laws, he said, “are themselves intolerable and discriminate.”

Gallagher said that the Holy See will “remain active” in the discussions and debates about religious freedom, insisting that the Catholic Church can be a “moral compass” in dialogue on the issue.

Parolin in his closing remarks stressed the importance of religious freedom and freedom of conscience as an “inherent” part of human nature, where each person is called by God “to do what is good.”

Part of the reason for these new violations of conscience, he said, stem from “a fundamental misunderstanding of religious freedom” driven by “fear and ideology,” whether it be a terrorist regime attempting enforce “draconian” practices, or “the intolerant voices of the politically correct” which seek to “silence those that clash with their political ideology.”

Parolin faulted a “radical subjectivism” and an exaggerated individualism as the root causes of this misunderstanding.

“It is time we reflect more seriously on intolerance in such situations, and the shrinking space for dialogue among those who express their beliefs differently,” he said, noting that the ability to disagree is the mark of a healthy society.

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