WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday called on the Vatican to be "serious" in addressing religious persecution in China, on the heels of a visit in which Pope Francis did not meet him.
Pompeo, an evangelical Protestant and staunch critic of China, in a radio interview drew an implicit contrast between Francis and John Paul II -- a hero of conservative Catholics whom President Donald Trump is courting ahead of November 3 elections.
"John Paul II was an important part of turning the tide and creating freedom in Europe and the destruction of the Soviet Union and the freedom of the people that were oppressed by the Soviet Union," Pompeo told conservative host Hugh Hewitt.
"We need that same moral witness today," Pompeo said.
"They're a powerful force for good in the world and we need them talking about this in a way that is serious and thoughtful and consistent with the beliefs I know they hold so dearly."
Pompeo visited Rome last week but did see Francis, with the Vatican saying that the pontiff avoids such audiences with foreign dignitaries during campaign periods.
Vatican officials say they were taken aback by public criticism by Pompeo of an opening to China led by Francis.
Beijing strictly controls religion but under a 2018 deal, the pope regained authority to appoint bishops, who will be recommended by China's officially atheist government.
While in Rome, Pompeo spoke at a symposium organized by the US embassy to the Holy See where he called on "every faith leader to find the courage to confront religious persecution."
Rights advocates say that China has also severely repressed Tibetan Buddhism and Islam, with more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking people incarcerated in reeducation camps in Xinjiang.
China contends that the camps provide vocational training and are aimed at discouraging Islamic extremism.