Catholics furious over Obama plan to close Vatican embassy site

Tim Cavanaugh Contributor
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An Obama State Department plan to move the embassy to the Holy See has Catholics and former ambassadors to the Vatican up in arms.

“In late 2014 or early 2015, the State Department will relocate the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See,” a Department of State spokesperson told The Daily Caller in an email late Tuesday.  “The Embassy will be moved to the U.S. government compound that currently houses U.S. Embassy Rome and the U.S. Mission to UN Agencies in Rome.  At that point, the U.S. government compound in Rome will house three distinct diplomatic missions with three independently accredited ambassadors working in three separate chanceries.  Our Embassy to the Holy See will continue to operate as an independent mission, and our diplomatic presence will remain one of the largest missions accredited to the Holy See.”

The State Department named security as its main reason for closing the embassy site on Aventine Hill, which has been the home of the U.S. mission to the Vatican since 1994.

But five former ambassadors to the Holy See — with which the United States established diplomatic relations in 1984 — are condemning the move. And the top U.S. organization for Catholic civil rights calls the State Department’s explanation for the move “risible.”

“It’s not just those who bomb churches and kill Catholics in the Middle East who are our antagonists, but it’s also those who restrict our religious freedoms and want to close down our embassy to the Holy See,” former Boston mayor and ambassador Ray Flynn told the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen last week after the embassy plan came to light.

Flynn, along with former ambassadors James Nicholson, Francis Rooney, Mary Ann Glendon and Thomas Melady, harshly criticized the move.

Nicholson told Allen the move turns “this embassy into a stepchild of the embassy to Italy,” while Rooney said it put the American mission to the seat of worldwide Catholicism “on the road to nowhere.”

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said the move is “pure politics” by an administration with a track record of contempt for religious believers.

“You could make a principled argument that for security or economic reasons the embassy needs to be moved,” Donohue told The Daily Caller. “But that assumes the person making the argument has principles. This administration certainly wasn’t concerned about the safety of its embassy in Benghazi. And as for the economic argument, this is the most fiscally reckless administration in American history. It’s risible to think this administration is concerned about our safety.”

In its email to The Daily Caller, however, the State Department said the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. embassy in Libya — which left four Americans dead, among them Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens — motivated the move.

“Security is our top priority in making this move,” the State Department wrote.  “The State Department is working to implement all of the independent Benghazi Accountability Review Board (ARB) recommendations, to include a renewed call for U.S. government facilities to be collocated when they are in the same metropolitan area.  The relocation takes advantage of existing security improvements at the U.S. government compound in Rome.  This move will also save the U.S. government money.”

The security argument is questionable, however. Vatican City is protected by the Vatican’s Corps of Gendarmerie and the Pontifical Swiss Guard, and neither the independent papal state nor  Rome’s Via delle Terme Deciane, where the embassy is currently housed, are particular hotbeds of terrorism.

“This is a bogus argument,” Donohue told TheDC. “What’s really at stake is an attrition of the prestige of the Holy See. It fits the mold of the Obama administration and its attitude toward religion. Look at the way it’s treated Jews and Israel with regard to Iran. Look at the HHS mandate on birth control.”

The State Department said the Holy See remains a “key bilateral partner” for the United States on religious freedom and humanitarian causes.

“We reject any suggestion that this decision, made for security and administrative reasons, constitutes a downgrading of our relations with the Holy See,” State told TheDC.

Donohue said the move continues a pattern of indifference to Catholic concerns by Democratic administrations, which he said coordinate closely with pro-abortion groups that frequently include the word “Catholic” in their titles.

“The first president to recognize the Vatican as nation-state was a Republican, Ronald Reagan,” he said. “Under Clinton and Obama, policy has been tied in very closely with left-wing groups like Catholics for Choice, George Soros-funded front groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United. They have no use for the Catholic Church whatsoever.”

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