US secretary of state discusses issues including the Middle East and Obama's healthcare reforms

Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, hosted a lengthy meeting with his US counterpart, John Kerry, today to discuss ongoing tensions in the Middle East, as well as the US bishops’ concerns about the Obama administration’s health care mandate.

“The meeting was very broad; it lasted about one hour and 40 minutes,” said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman.

Father Lombardi said the two secretaries of state did not meet alone, but had top aides with them for the discussions. Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, participated, as did Victoria Nuland, Kerry’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs; Shaun Casey, special adviser to Kerry for faith-based and community initiatives; and Ken Hackett, US ambassador to the Holy See.

“Various themes were discussed and naturally those regarded the Middle East first of all – the situation in Syria and preparations for the (upcoming peace) conference in Geneva,” Father Lombardi said, referring to the UN-sponsored peace talks scheduled for January 22.

Father Lombardi said the Vatican’s position on the Syrian conflict, which has been ongoing since March 2011, was explained by the Pope in his January 13 speech to diplomats serving at the Vatican. The Vatican’s top concerns, he said, are to restore peace, address the serious humanitarian situation and help the suffering Syrian population.

The two secretaries of state “also discussed the United States, especially the themes that have been the object of concern and discussion by the US bishops: the healthcare reform and its relationship to guarantees of religious freedom,” Father Lombardi said.

In general, employers who provide health insurance to workers were required as of January 1 to comply with a government mandate that those policies include various types of contraceptives, including sterilisation and abortifacients. The penalty for noncompliance is potentially thousands of dollars daily in fines. Although the Obama administration has made some allowances for exemptions for religious institutions, when final rules were issued in June, some Catholic employers said the exception still did not address their moral objections.

While legal challenges to the mandate are making their way through the US courts, Archbishop Joseph E Kurtz of Louisville, president of the bishops’ conference, asked Obama on December 31 to exempt from fines religious institutions who believe funding contraception and sterilisation violate their religious principles.

Cardinal-designate Parolin and Kerry “also discussed negotiations between Israel and Palestine, in which the American secretary of state has been deeply involved,” Father Lombardi said.

“Then they also spoke about Africa and particularly about the situation in South Sudan, which has been deteriorating recently, and the hopes that the mediation underway will succeed.”

The United Nations reported on Monday that some 355,000 South Sudanese had been displaced during a month of fighting between forces loyal to the president and those following a former deputy vice president. The UN Mission in South Sudan estimated that that up to 10,000 people may have been killed since the conflict started on December 15.

Father Lombardi said Cardinal-designate Parolin was pleased with the discussions, the climate of the meeting and the opportunity to discuss a variety of themes and share concerns.

“There was a positive atmosphere and it was a fruitful encounter,” Father Lombardi said Cardinal-designate Parolin told him.

A tweet from the US Embassy to the Holy See said the topics also included Cuba.

The Vatican Television Centre released a brief video montage of moments from the meeting, including a clip in which Kerry told Cardinal-designate Parolin, “Thank you very much for doing this and arranging this on short notice.”

The US secretary of state congratulated him on being named a cardinal by Pope Francis and explained that, after his stop in Rome, he was going to Kuwait for the Syria donor’s conference.

The video montage also shows Nuland saying goodbye to the cardinal-designate and telling him, “Pope Francis is exciting for non-Catholics as well.” Cardinal-designate Parolin replied: “That is good news. Thank you.”