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The Vatican’s newly installed Secretary of State, Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin, held lengthy talks with his US counterpart John Kerry in Rome yesterday in which the pair discussed topics ranging from the Middle-East peace process to President Barack Obama's controversial healthcare mandate.
Mr Kerry, a practising Catholic, called the meeting "very comprehensive and very, very interesting" but in his statement to the press omitted mention of the healthcare mandate, which has been fiercely opposed by the US bishops.
The meeting, which lasted just under two hours, focused on Syria and preparations for the UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva which are to be held a week today.
On Monday Pope Francis said in speech to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See that he hoped the “Geneva 2” conference would allow "the people of Syria, the region, and the world to conceive of a fresh start to end violence that has claimed more than 130,000 lives.” The restoration of peace in the area and addressing the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict are two of the Vatican's top concerns. Earlier this month the Pontifical Academy of Sciences accused the US of worsening the conflict by "orchestrating a large group of countries" in 2012 to fund rebels to topple the Syrian regime, which it hinted had undermined a UN plan for a ceasefire.
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said yesterday that the two secretaries of state "also discussed the United States, especially the themes that have been the object of concern and discussion by the US bishops: the health care reform and its relationship to guarantees of religious freedom".
In an open letter to Obama's administration on 31 December, the president of the US bishops' conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, asked Mr Obama to exempt religious institutions from "crippling fines" if they exclude abortifacients and sterilisation from their insurance plans for their employees. However Mr Kerry made no reference to this part of the discussion in his statement to the press yesterday.
Mr Kerry, a practising Catholic, said that he was asked by Cardinal-designate Parolin for a “solid briefing” on the Middle East peace process and promised he would stay in touch in light of Pope Francis's visit to Israel, Palestine and Jordan in May.
He said: "I’m particularly pleased to know that the Holy Father and the Secretary of State in the Holy See will continue to speak out about peace in the Middle East, continue to try to bring the parties together, continue to help address some of the most pressing concerns that are challenging failed states and failing states in too many parts of the world."
He said that addressing global poverty was a common interest of Pope Francis and President Obama. Making reference to addressing poverty in Africa, Asia and South Central Asia, he said: "[The US and the Church] have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet."
Other topics covered were the challenges in Sudan, particularly in South Sudan, which has a large Catholic population and a Catholic president; climate change; and the need for freedom of religion and respect for human rights in Cuba.
Mr Kerry talked on a personal level of the "thrill" of going to the Vatican to meet the Secretary of State of the Holy See. "It was a privilege for me as the first Catholic Secretary of State in about 32 or 33 years to have the privilege of going to the Vatican today to talk with the new Secretary of State there about the broad array of issues that we face together across the world.
"On a personal level, it was a thrill for me to be able to do that, as an altar boy, as a young kid, I would never have imagined that I would have been crossing the threshold of the Vatican to meet, as Secretary of State, with the Secretary of State of the Holy See."
Fr Lombardi described the meeting as a “fruitful encounter".
Top aides joined the secretaries of state for discussion, including Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican's foreign minister; Ken Hackett, US ambassador to the Holy See; Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs; and Shaun Casey, special advisor to Kerry for faith-based and community initiatives.
Above: John Kerry tours the Vatican's Sala Regia or "royal room". He said as an altar boy he would never have imagined entering the Vatican as US Secretary of State for talks. Photo: CNS/Reuters