Our Man in Rome

Francis Rooney, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, discusses the state of religious freedom in the world.

FRANCIS ROONEY is keeping his eye on China, Burma and Iran. And more. The list of countries where religious freedom is imperiled seems to be growing every year. The U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See discussed religious freedom, as well as anti-human-trafficking efforts led by Consolata Missionary Sister Eugenia Bonetti and next year’s papal visit to the United States, in a conversation with Register correspondent Edward Pentin, held at the ambassador’s residence in Rome Sept. 24.

Regarding the Holy Father’s visit to the United States next year, what do you hope it will achieve?

First, anytime we have the Holy Father on our soil we’re elated and thankful. Certainly it says a lot about Holy See and United States relations. It’s a chance to highlight Holy See-United States relations. It’s a chance for the Holy Father to say some important things right there at the heart of the U.N., which at times has been a matter of concern for the United States, and at times a matter of concern for the Holy Father — sometimes for different reasons.

Certainly, it may be a chance for the Holy Father to pay a call on the president after the great meeting they had here, which as you know was one of the longest head of state meetings ever and from what we can tell went quite well.

Can you confirm he’ll be going to Washington to meet the president?

I don’t know if it’s officially confirmed, but the rumors are pretty strong.

Has there been any dialogue or an opening of dialogue between you and your Iranian counterpart?

No. We don’t speak with the Iranians. There are people a lot higher up the food chain than me who would handle something like that if it were to be handled at all.

This year’s International Religious Freedom report was recently issued by the State Department. One criticism of the report is that the United States doesn’t ensure these violations of religious freedom are followed up with action or with sanctions. Saudi Arabia is often cited as an example. The United States still has very strong relations with that country, yet it is one of the most repressive towards Christians.

The United States has a very, very rich and deep relationship with Saudi Arabia going back many years, and we’ve tried to avoid imprinting upon them an American solution to some of the unique conditions and situations and legacies that exist in that evolving nation.

King Abdullah recently took some steps to ameliorate some of the harsher words in the educational texts of Saudi Arabia. We have Abu Dhabi opening relations with the Holy See, so I think we’re seeing some good things in that part of the world; whether the progress is as fast as we might all like is subject probably to debate.

We have to be optimistic that the movement is in the right direction.

Saudi Arabia is one example, but China is another where trade relations seem to be the same as other countries. Should the United States do more, in your view, to place sanctions on China to increase religious freedom there?

Well, the president has spoken quite a bit about China and he has tried to lead by example. At one time, the secretary of state went to China and went to, I think, a Protestant service to make a tangible symbol of America’s view of religious freedom right there on Chinese soil.

We do have extensive trade relations with China, but we have been pretty consistent in calling on China to let religion be religion and let the state be the state.

In China’s relations with the Holy See, it has kind of been some steps forward, some steps back, but we’ve had some encouraging steps recently with the appointment of Chinese bishops.

But it’s one thing for a U.S. official to attend a Protestant service; it would be another to attend a Mass of the underground Church.

Well that’s a real complicated situation. You know from talking to the Holy See officials just how complicated that official-unofficial church is. I don’t know whether China would show up on the “countries of particular concern” list that has not been published yet, but that would generate sanctions. I don’t believe they were in the past. I believe there has been some steady progress.

I believe the president will continue to speak up, pushing for religious freedom in China. Whether it would rise to the level of sanctions, I wouldn’t be able to speculate.

China’s a big country with a lot of religions, a lot of Catholics, a lot of Christians. They’ve got some unique problems to solve, too, with their industrialization. Because at the end of the day, what we want is to make sure that institutions can develop to create freedom and stability in the long run that would benefit the highest numbers of people in the country.

Turning to Iraq, what is the United States doing to guarantee religious freedom there, not just for Christians, but all religious minorities, because it’s said the Iraqi constitution doesn’t offer many guarantees?

The level of sectarian strife certainly does surprise anyone who can read in the world today. The efforts that we’re making to battle that sectarian strife, such as quietly building basic public service institutions, means you can make a country run; trying to create a police force that can deal with the hard criminal element, which seems intent on destabilizing the country and hurting the good people that are there.

Those are the things that in the long run create the climate for tolerance and freedom of people and are done for a government that is democratically elected and isn’t imposed by a dictator.

In the short term, of course, we’ve got to work to try to find a home for refugees and make their plight more tolerable and reach solutions quicker. I think that’s why Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice has appointed a fellow called James Foley who’s a foreign service person, to be head of the Iraq refugee situation. So that will give a consistent voice to push for solutions, as well as the addition of money, to the High Commission [for Refugees].

On the issue of human trafficking, what new initiatives are the U.S. government and your embassy undertaking with regard to this issue? I know you are familiar with Sister Eugenia Bonetti, who heads a team of some 200 sisters working full-time in anti-trafficking initiatives in Italy.

You know our trafficking in persons program is the leader of the world in [fighting] trafficking of persons. We’re diving in to help the efforts of Sister Eugenia Bonetti, and that is a related slant on the pursuit of religious freedom.

You know, this program is just expanding radically. Thirty-five nuns in 27 countries — there were just three or four countries a few years ago. When President Bush came here, my wife, Kathleen, and I hosted a breakfast with Sister Eugenia and the first lady. It was very personal and a lot of visibility was brought directly to the first lady in a small setting.

Sister Eugenia had the opportunity to speak with the president about her efforts and to urge him to do more, which I think he will remember. And now we have a conference coming up on Oct. 15 where we’re helping to sponsor Sister Eugenia — it would be more accurate to say it was her conference. We’re going to try to do all we can do in the meantime to drum up interest and enthusiasm for that among the diplomatic community and in the Vatican and anyone who has an interest in eliminating the scourge of trafficking.

Would you briefly explain how this collaboration with Sister Eugenia came about?

My understanding is that it started very small with identifying programs in a few Eastern bloc countries and working to limit the tourist immigrant visas in Japan and maybe in Thailand. I remember Romania being involved, and Italy as a host country.

Now it has grown to 27 countries and different orders of nuns continue to sign on with Sister Eugenia. I also think there are priests involved too.

The bottom line is that the United States is a country founded on the big ideals of freedom, human dignity, respecting people.

God made us, God made our country and it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. So we’ve got to follow up — we have a duty to pursue these things.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.

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