ROME – Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said Wednesday he was “surprised” when his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, published a Sept. 18 article criticizing the pope for his position on China, saying it wasn’t the right venue for the discussion to take place.

Days before traveling to Italy for meetings with top Italian and Vatican officials, Pompeo penned an article in the conservative magazine First Things – which last year carried an article describing Pope Francis’s administration as a “failing papacy” – suggesting that the Vatican and Pope Francis risk losing moral authority for not challenging China on religious freedom.

Among other things, Pompeo said the Vatican’s 2018 two-year provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, which is set to expire in October and will likely be extended, confuses Chinese Catholics, and he urged the Vatican not to renew the deal.

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Speaking to journalists on the margins of a Sept. 30 event on religious freedom organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, where Pompeo was the guest of honor, Parolin said Vatican officials felt “surprise” after seeing Pompeo’s article, “which we didn’t expect, although we know well the position of the Trump administration and especially of Secretary Pompeo on this matter.”

There was also surprise, he said, because Pompeo’s visit to Rome and his meetings with Vatican officials – including Parolin himself and Vatican Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher – were already planned and on the schedule.

“It seemed to me that that was the more opportune occasion, the more suitable one, to speak of this accord,” he said, referring to the already scheduled private meetings.

Parolin noted that he and Gallagher will be meeting with Pompeo Thursday and indicated that the issue of China will come up, saying, “there will be a way to exchange views on this theme.”

He also criticized Pompeo’s choice to publish his article in First Things, which has been openly critical of the pope, saying “Where things are published is also significant.”

“We know that interpretation comes not only from the text but also from the context,” he said. “Therefore, the context already tells you something regarding the intensions of the person who wrote and published this article.”

Despite the open criticism from the U.S. State Department and even from many Catholics who oppose the Vatican’s engagement with Chinese authorities, Parolin said they “go ahead” with renewing the agreement on bishops’ appointments.”

“This is a thought-out decision, taken after many years, many years of being on a path in this direction,” he said, adding, “We know that that there is much resistance…even criticism.”

“We take notice of this and we don’t just take notice, but we take it into consideration, because this is an extremely delicate matter,” he said, but insisted there is agreement “on the ends. We all believe in religious freedom.”

“The problem is the way to realize this path,” he said, but voiced his belief that the Vatican’s current method of dialogue and engagement will achieve that goal in the long run.

Gallagher also spoke briefly to journalists on the margins of the event, telling Italian news agency ANSA that Pope Francis decided not to meet with Pompeo during his visit because it was too close to the U.S. presidential elections.

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“Yes, that is precisely why the pope will not meet American secretary of state Mike Pompeo,” Gallagher said when asked if Pompeo’s Vatican visit could be a photo op to help in U.S. President Donald Trump’s reelection.

Parolin echoed Gallagher’s remarks, saying Pompeo had asked to meet with Pope Francis, but the request was denied, because the pope “had already said clearly that we do not receive politicians close to elections.”

Asked whether he believed the embassy event he and Gallagher attended would be used politically to advance Trump’s reelection campaign, Parolin did not give a straight answer, but indicated agreement, saying, “It has been interpreted in this way.”

“Even last night, on Italian TV, this publication was aimed primarily at the internal politics,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t know, I have no proof to say this, but certainly it is a thought that may be made.”

“I don’t know what effect this will have, I don’t know whether there will be a benefit. (But) I think that using this is not the most opportune thing,” he said, arguing that “If what you want to obtain is the consensus of voters, I don’t believe this is the most suitable way to do it.”

The reason, he said, is because religious freedom is “a question that has nothing to do with politics. I believe this is an intra-church question and therefore should not be used to these ends.”

Asked about critics who argue that the Vatican doesn’t do enough to defend religious freedom given its soft approach to nations such as China, Parolin reiterated points made in his speech that “the defense and promotion of religious liberty and world peace is the principal state of pontifical diplomacy.”

“This is the reason for our existence. The moment in which we do not defend religious freedom, we would fail our very nature and our reason for existing,” he said, adding that “the problem is how, not what. How, and on the how there could be different points of view, different positions, different proposals.”

For the time being, Parolin said the Holy See will continue with its “relaxed” engagement of China.

“We support the politics of small steps,” he said. “We believe that each result, even if it is not striking, even if it not showy, even if at the beginning it doesn’t appear to give great results, it is however a step forward towards greater religious liberty.”

Parolin also briefly addressed the recent surprise resignation of Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the pope’s former chief of staff, from his position as head of the Vatican’s saint-making department and from his rights as a cardinal over alleged embezzlement – allegations Becciu has denied.

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“I believe this matter we are witnessing has saddened us all profoundly,” Parolin said. “It is a sad matter and a sad moment in the Church’s path. But we hope that clarity can be achieved.”

Parolin said he feels sorry for those involved, because “clearly they are also suffering a great deal, are in great pain. But let’s hope that everything can be cleared up and above all, that there is a will on the part of all to follow the pope on this path to righteousness, transparency and linearity, also in dealing with economic issues.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen