The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom believes the United States and the Vatican should be partners in pursuing religious freedom, including in China.
“We want to stand with them [the Vatican], particularly on the issue of religious freedom,” Ambassador Sam Brownback told Crux.
Last month, during a weeklong tour of Taiwan and Hong Kong, Brownback said that China is “at war with faith,” noting the country’s rising tides of discrimination against Muslims, Catholics, and Buddhists.
He reiterated that point to Crux, saying “you’ve got the largest country population in the world in an all out war with faith.”
“But it is a war they will not win,” he added.
Brownback’s strong words attracted much publicity, but he said it was authorized by the State Department, and he defended it as a duty the United States has to ensure that religious liberty is aggressively defended.
He has served in the role of Ambassador At Large for International Religious Freedom since February 2018. Previously, he served as a senator from Kansas from 1996 to 2011 and then as governor of the state from 2011-2018. Brownback converted to Catholicism in 2011.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” he said, citing the Parable of the Talents from the New Testament, which Jesus used to offer a lesson about the need to steward the gifts one has been given.
“We’ve been given much,” Brownback said to Crux, noting that the U.S. is the most powerful nation on earth and has “a legacy of religious freedom.”
“It’s our role to advocate for that and we’re held accountable for what we’ve been given,” he said.
For that reason, he insists that “We [the United States] should be pressuring China to open up” when it comes to religious freedom.
During his visit, Brownback criticized last year’s Vatican deal with China, which reportedly allows for the Chinese government to have a say in the appointment of the country’s bishops.
“Since this provisional deal was announced last year, the Chinese government’s abuse of members of the Catholic community has continued. We see no signs that will change in the near future,” Brownback said while in Hong Kong.
He told Crux that his criticisms came in response to concerns raised by Tibetan Buddhists who feared that the deal could “set a precedent” for the state exercising control when it came to picking religious leaders.
“Religious institutions should be able to pick their own leadership,” Brownback insisted, adding that authoritarian regimes always try to maintain control over religious leadership.
While Brownback acknowledged that “no one knows what’s in the deal except the Vatican and the Chinese government” - which he defended as each sovereign entity’s own prerogative - he said what’s important is preventing the coercion of people of faith.
“These are not done in a vacuum,” he said.
In response to Brownback’s criticisms of the Vatican deal, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said earlier this month that it would require patience and that change would not happen overnight.
“Our hope is that [the agreement] will help, not limit, religious freedom,” Parolin told reporters during an event meant to raise awareness of anti-Christian persecution on April 3.
Brownback told Crux that he has respect for the Church’s longstanding efforts to promote religious freedom, and in particular, he pointed to Nicaragua and Venezuela where he said the Church has continually led the way on the issue.
Despite tactical differences, he insisted that the United States and the Vatican are both forces for good when it comes to religious liberty.
“The Catholic Church has been a beacon of religious freedom,” Brownback concluded, “and we want to stand with them.”