U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice met her opposite number in the Vatican, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Feb. 8 in a 45-minute session devoted to the Middle East, Iraq, and religious liberty in countries that present difficult environments for Christianity, such as Saudi Arabia, China and Vietnam.
The two also discussed cooperation between the Bush White House and the Vatican on "moral and spiritual" concerns.
Sodano opened the meeting by saying that he had visited Pope John Paul II the day before at the Gemelli Hospital, and the pope asked that his greetings be conveyed to Rice and, through her, to President George Bush. Rice in turn expressed Bush's greetings to the pope, and said that "the prayers of the American people" are with John Paul for a speedy recovery.
The pope has been hospitalized for a week with what Vatican officials have described as respiratory problems related to a case of the flu.
Rice spoke with Sodano about her recent trip to the Middle East, saying that both the Israelis and Palestinians seem determined to move ahead with a peace process. She said that the American government will work with both sides to move things forward.
In reply, Sodano underscored longstanding Vatican concerns about the Middle East, especially the need for guarantees of access to Christian holy sites in any final status arrangement, and the idea of an international status for Jerusalem. Rice assured Sodano that the Americans would take those concerns into consideration.
Sodano did not mention another traditional element of Vatican thinking about the Holy Land, which is the need for international observers to monitor a cease-fire and to assist with an eventual peace deal.
American sources told NCR that Sodano also discussed the difficulties facing Christians in the Holy Land, especially the problem of Christian out-migration, which has increased dramatically since the beginning of the second intifadah.
Sodano encouraged Rice to take an interest in the negotiations between the Vatican and the Israelis over implementation of the 1994 fundamental agreement, especially related to the tax status of church properties and access to Israeli courts. Rice assured Sodano that American diplomats both in Israel and in Rome would try to be of help.
On Iraq, Rice described the outcome of the recent elections, and also pledged that the Americans were aware of the difficulties faced by the Christians in the country, especially the Chaldean church in union with Rome. She said that the United States would "work hard" to help the new Iraqi government ensure protection of the rights of religious minorities.
Rice conveyed the appreciation of the Bush government for the Vatican's efforts on interreligious understanding worldwide.
Sodano raised the question of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, where it is virtually impossible for Catholic priests to give pastoral care to the substantial population of Catholic migrant workers, many from the Philippines and Korea. Similarly, Sodano spoke about the struggles of the Catholic church in China, where, for example, bishops are sometimes prevented from visiting the Vatican, at times for fear that they would not be allowed back into the country.
In both cases, Rice said the United States would continue to raise these issues in conversations with the Saudi and Chinese governments.
Sodano also said that the Vatican viewed with pleasure the recent release of a Vietnamese priest from prison, which suggests that conditions of religious freedom are improving in that country.
On the cultural front, Sodano expressed appreciation for Bush's stand on "moral and spiritual values," and said he hoped there would be further areas for cooperation on these issues.
Rice likewise expressed appreciation for the Vatican's defense of "human dignity," and complimented its work on HIV/AIDS and human trafficking.
Rice pressed the Vatican to adopt a positive stand in favor of genetically modified foods, a favorite concern of the former ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, touting them as a way to alleviate hunger and famine. Sources told NCR that Sodano did not express a response.
Rice was accompanied by several State Department and White House officials, as well as Brent Hardt, the acting head of the U.S. embassy to the Vatican. Nicholson has returned to the United States as the new head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and a successor has not yet been named.
In addition to Sodano, the Vatican was represented by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the chief official for relations with states; Msgr. Pietro Parolin, Lajolo's deputy; Msgr. James Green, head of the English section of the Secretariat of State; and Msgr. Joseph Murphy of the Secretariat of State.
Rice was originally scheduled to meet Pope John Paul II, but the health crisis of last week made that impossible. Rice was also supposed to see Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but he too is down with the flu, so she met Italy's Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini.
In contrast to the tensions that have coursed through Rome in recent days with respect to the pope's health, the atmosphere between Sodano and Rice seemed almost jovial. Sodano jokingly asked Rice how the Vatican compared to other places she had seen in her travels, to which she responded, "It stacks up pretty well."
Later, when Sodano gave Rice a medal with reference to the Christian roots of Europe, he pointedly observed, "There's no need to underscore the Christian roots of America," a way of saying that by comparison to Europe, America has preserved its religious faith in a more public way.
Rice then gave Sodano a silver bowl, and he exclaimed, "It's perfect for our chocolates."
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org