Blinken meets Pope Francis, gets VIP tour of Sistine Chapel

VATICAN CITY — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday received VIP treatment at the Vatican, getting a private tour of the Sistine Chapel before he sat down for closed-door talks with Pope Francis.

Blinken was the first high-level official of President Joe Biden’s administration to have a private audience with the pontiff.

There was no immediate details from either side about the two men’s discussions in the Apostolic Palace.

Last year, when Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo came to the Vatican, he wasn’t granted private time with Pope Francis. At the time, Vatican officials said that was because Holy See didn’t want to give any impression of favoritism only weeks before the U.S. presidential election that brought Biden to power.

But China was a thorny issue between both sides at the time. Pompeo had undiplomatically blasted the Vatican for what he said was a lessening of its moral authority by signing an accord with Beijing over the nominations of Chinese bishops. Pompeo called on the Holy See to take a tougher stand against Chinese restrictions on religious freedom.

Biden, for his part, has criticized China for forced labor practices. Francis has championed human rights in many countries as part of his determination to draw attention to people’s suffering.

But as the bishops’ accord indicates, Francis is also intent on improving conditions for Catholics in China. Some in his own church expressed dismay that Francis hasn’t taken a harder stance on Chinese authorities’ longtime discrimination against Catholics loyal to the pontiff.

Blinken is visiting Rome before flying to southern Italy for Tuesday’s G-20 meeting of foreign ministers, which is focused on improving collaboration among nations on climate change, health issues and development.