At the Vatican on Wednesday, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced authoritarian regimes and autocrats, naming Cuba, Iran, China and Syria as the roots of religious repression, because they fail to acknowledge a power higher than their own.
“When the state rules absolutely, God becomes an absolute threat to authority. That’s why Cuba canceled National Catholic Youth Day back in August,” Pompeo said. “When the state rules absolutely, human dignity is trampled, not cherished. That’s why Assad kills his own people, and has no regard for the 11 million Syrians suffering as displaced persons and refugees.”
“When the state rules absolutely, moral norms are crushed completely. That’s why the Islamic Republic of Iran has jailed, tortured, and killed thousands of its own citizens for forty years. When the state rules absolutely, it demands its citizens worship government, not God. That’s why China has put more than one million Uighur Muslims in internment camps and is why it throws Christian pastors in jail.”
“Freedom of religion can also be threatened when an intolerant majority rules. That’s how the Burmese security forces have been able to drive hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims out of their homes, in the most violent and brutal ways,” he said.
Pompeo’s words came during a symposium co-hosted by the Vatican and the United States Embassy to the Holy See called “Pathways to Achieving Human Dignity: Partnering with Faith-Based Organizations.”
(Crux‘s John Allen moderated one of the panels at the event.)
The symposium had three panels that demonstrated how governments and other institutions can partner with faith-based organizations to advance religious freedom, fight against human trafficking and provide humanitarian assistance.
Also present was Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, analogous to the Vatican’s foreign minister.
“No one should feel or be treated as a second-class citizen because of religious affiliation,” Gallagher said, noting that too many people in the world live without religious freedom.
The archbishop also said that the “principal emphasis” of religious freedom should not be “political or ideological” but to “protect human rights” and peaceful co-existence.
Gallagher also said that when individuals and communities are guaranteed the exercise of their rights, they’re free not only to realize their potential, but also to contribute to society as a whole.
The archbishop then turned to human trafficking, which affects an estimated 20-30 million people around the world. Gallagher called the industry the “darkest and most reprehensible activities today,” and warned that those who traffic in human people “have no scruples.”
Referring to humanitarian aid, Gallagher noted that Catholic aid agencies make no distinction regarding the identity of those in need when distributing aid, and thanked the partnerships many of these agencies have with governments to fund specific projects.
The prelate did note that the government funding is sometimes “tied to ideological” demands on recipients, “eroding the traditions and moral values of the people they want to help.”
The symposium is one of several activities being organized by the U.S. embassy to commemorate the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two states, forged by Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan during the waning years of the Cold War.
According to Pompeo, the two leaders “combined the moral authority of the Holy See with the prosperity and example of the United States, the freest nation on earth, to fight the evil empire. Through patience and unity of purpose, they prevailed.”
Their words and deeds, the Secretary of State said, helped leave the Soviet leviathan on the “ash heap of history.”
“Think of the millions of believers who can live with dignity and purpose, who can now worship without fear; thanks to the joint efforts of a pope and a president,” Pompeo said. “What blessing to the world!”
Pompeo also spoke about the global alliance for religious freedom launched by the United States last year, urging governments and religions to come together because “what could be more powerful than all voices coming together for the freedom to worship God.”
He said that nations that are paying attention and denouncing China’s violations to human rights and human dignity are speaking out, and that they doing so following Jesus’ wisdom: “Be not afraid.”
“Today we must gird ourselves for another battle in defense of human dignity and religious freedom,” Pompeo said. “The stakes are arguably higher than they were even during the Cold War, because the threats are more diverse and more numerous.”