Pompeo, Pope Francis urge religious freedom in Mideast, elsewhere

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed on Thursday on the need to protect the rights of Christian minorities in the Middle East during a meeting at the Vatican, the U.S. State Department said.

Pompeo, whose trip this week to Italy, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Greece has been overshadowed by an impeachment inquiry at home targeting President Donald Trump, met the pope for about a half an hour.

“They reaffirmed the United States and Holy See commitment to advancing religious freedom around the world, and in particular, protecting Christian communities in the Middle East,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said.

Ancient Christian communities face persecution or harassment in some Middle Eastern countries, and many Christians have left to build new lives in the West.

The Vatican did not issue a statement on the contents of the meeting. It usually does so only when the pope meets heads of state.

On Wednesday Pompeo attended a Vatican conference on religious freedom where he blasted China over its treatment of Uighur Muslims.

Pompeo, the first Italian-American secretary of state, has already met Italian leaders on his trip and later on Thursday paid a visit to his ancestral home town of Pacentro in the rugged Abruzzo region to the east of Rome.

According to a pool reporter traveling with him, Pompeo was greeted by a crowd of local residents and a scrum of journalists. A group of children started calling out, “Pompeo! Pompeo!” He greeted them back in English.

It was Pompeo’s first visit to his grandfather’s home town. Locals said the population had declined from around 6,000 in World War Two to around 1,000 today. They said that, like Pompeo’s grandfather, many people had moved overseas, including to Canada, Venezuela and Australia, as well as to the United States.

Pompeo, who has been accompanied on his trip to Italy by his wife Susan, is due to make brief stops in Montenegro and North Macedonia on Friday before flying on to Athens.

Reporting by Philip Pullella, pool report and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Gareth Jones