The following are excerpts from our sister website’s original interview with Ambassador Joe Donnelly. Find the full text below.
On Ukraine. “The United States welcomes recent statements by the Holy See condemning the targeting of civilian infrastructure, as well as His Holiness’ personal pleas for the end of brutality and humanitarian violations. We affirm Pope Francis’ acknowledgement of the moral right of the Ukrainian people to bear arms in self-defence and the morality of countries to send weapons to Ukraine.”
On US-Holy See relations. “Pope Francis and President Biden share a strong connection. This close connection to the Holy See allows my Mission to look for areas of tangible collaboration with the Vatican, but also to effectively deliver hard messages to work toward closer alignment.”
On the Holy See and China. “We continually urge the Holy See to be careful in their dealings with the PRC. The US is deeply concerned about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere […] China continues to exercise control over religion and restricts the activities and freedom of religious adherents when the government perceives these as threatening state or Chinese Communist Party interests.”
In recent weeks, a priest was burnt alive in his home in Nigeria, yet another episode in a long massacre of Christians around the world. According to a recent study by the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (Persecuted more than ever. Report on Christians oppressed for their faith 2020-2022), Africa has seen a sharp increase in terrorist violence. As a result, more than 7,600 Nigerian Christians were reportedly murdered between January 2021 and June 2022.
Religious freedom is one of the issues at the centre of the Biden administration’s international efforts. We asked Joe Donnelly, former Congressman and Democratic Senator from Indiana, now United States Ambassador to the Holy See, a few questions.
How to deal with this situation?
This topic is one of much discussion in both the State Department and the White House. A few days ago, the White House Press Secretary noted that the US is deeply saddened by the senseless killing and is closely monitoring the situation. The US takes all incidents of violence seriously and raises them regularly in our conversations with Nigerian officials. Attributions of intent between criminality, ethnic identity, and religion are often difficult to distinguish. We hope the Nigerian authorities will quickly bring the perpetrators to justice.
The universality of the Catholic Church makes it a target and a powerful messenger. The Holy See can boast a powerful diplomatic corps. What role can the Holy See play in this particular international context?
One strength of the Holy See is its ability to reach effectively and poignantly around the globe. Pope Francis and the Catholic Church have unparalleled soft power in the world. There is an ambassador-equivalent, a nuncio, in nearly every country around the world. The Vatican has diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries. That’s almost as many as the US. In many ways, the Catholic Church is a tremendous force for good around the world. For example, about one quarter of the world’s health care is provided by the Catholic Church, which speaks to the importance and relevance of the church globally.
Can the Holy See play a role in the challenging dialogue between the US and the People’s Republic of China?
On China, we continually urge the Holy See to be careful in their dealings with the PRC. The US is deeply concerned about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere. The Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom has designated China a country of particular concern since 1999. China continues to exercise control over religion and restricts the activities and freedom of religious adherents when the government perceives these as threatening state or Chinese Communist Party interests.
Pope Francis’ message to diplomats was clear about peace in Ukraine. But is there a viable path today?
I became Ambassador to the Holy See last spring, just after the start of Russia’s unjustified war in Ukraine. Russia’s aggression has been an important, if not daily, part of my work here ever since. As President Biden said, winning the war in Ukraine is to get Russia out of Ukraine completely. The US will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes, so Ukraine can continue to defend itself and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table when the time comes. Russia remains the sole obstacle to peace in Ukraine. Russia’s savage attacks on Ukraine are the latest demonstration that President Putin currently has no interest in meaningful diplomacy; that short of erasing Ukraine’s independence, he will try to force Ukraine into a frozen conflict, lock in his gains, rest and refit his forces, and then, at some point, attack again. Russia and Russia alone can end this war today.
How may the Holy See aid the peace efforts?
The Holy See’s moral leadership can decisively influence how other nations understand this conflict. The US welcomes recent statements by the Holy See condemning the targeting of civilian infrastructure, as well as His Holiness’ personal pleas for the end of brutality and humanitarian violations. We affirm Pope Francis’ acknowledgement of the moral right of the Ukrainian people to bear arms in self-defence and the morality of countries to send weapons to Ukraine.
You are about to conclude your first year as the US Ambassador to the Holy See. How do you review the first year?
I look back on my first year as Ambassador with a sense of gratitude for all our team has accomplished. As an Embassy, we are charged with partnering with the Vatican, to build on its global reach and influence. The strong relationship between our two countries is only getting better. We are lucky that Pope Francis and President Biden share a strong connection. This close connection to the Holy See allows my Mission to look for areas of tangible collaboration with the Vatican, but also to effectively deliver hard messages to work toward closer alignment.
What is the current state of relations between the US and the Holy See?
The US and the Vatican are close friends and partners. I particularly look forward to deepening our collaboration and growing our commitment to help improve sanitation, clean water, and delivery of health services in places where this is desperately needed. The US shares Pope Francis’ core belief that everyone deserves access to good health care. In this time of global crisis, I look forward to working together to support health and sanitation systems and increase access to health care for families around the world.
Image: President Biden’s Twitter profile