Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is looking to Pope Francis, spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, for help in his efforts to negotiate peace between Muslims and Jews.
In a visit to the Vatican today, Kerry met with the Holy See’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, to discuss Mideast developments and other matters, including the agenda for a planned meeting between President Barack Obama and the new pope.
The talks ranged from the issue of global poverty to this month’s Syria peace conference to the fighting in South Sudan, where there is a large Catholic population, Kerry told reporters afterward. They discussed Israel-Palestinian peace talks in preparation for the pope’s announced visit to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories in May, Kerry said.
“This was as comprehensive a conversation as I’ve had with any secretary of state or foreign minister in the course of my tenure, and I think, happily, we agreed on an enormous amount of things that we can cooperate on,” Kerry said.
No date was announced for Obama to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
“I know that the Holy Father is anticipating the visit of President Obama here, and the president is looking forward to coming here to meet with him,” Kerry said.
Kerry said his discussions with Archbishop Parolin today covered the pope’s and Obama’s “common interest” in addressing poverty worldwide. Obama last month cited a need to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor, invoking Pope Francis’s warning that unfettered markets are increasing income disparities, and that risks fomenting social unrest.
“We have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet,” Kerry said.
In a statement, the Vatican said Kerry met with Archbishop Parolin for an hour and 40 minutes, discussing “the peace process in the Middle East, especially the situation in Syria and the preparations for the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference, and negotiations between Israel and Palestine.”
Speaking to reporters, Kerry expressed appreciation for the pope’s comments yesterday supporting the Syrian peace conference, which is scheduled to begin next week, and said he will keep the Vatican apprised of developments as he seeks to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Kerry hasn’t made public the substance of those negotiations, which include the treatment of Jerusalem, including the eastern part of the holy city where Palestinians seek to establish the capital of an independent state.
“Obviously, there are issues of enormous concern to the Holy See, not just about peace, but also about the freedom of access for religious worship in Jerusalem for all religions,” Kerry said.
In a sign of stepped-up Vatican diplomacy, Pope Francis has called repeatedly for ending the warfare in Syria, which has claimed more than 125,000 lives.
The Christian community in Syria, among the oldest in the world, makes up about 10 percent of the population of 22.5 million. Many Christians live near Damascus and in Aleppo, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the civil war.
Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, have been targeted by both sides in a conflict that pits largely Sunni rebels against a regime led by President Bashar al-Assad and fellow Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Christians have held some important positions in Assad’s government.
In his “State of the World” address to diplomats from 180 countries yesterday, the pope said that “renewed political will” is needed to end the Syrian civil war. The Geneva II conference “will make the beginning of the desired peace process,” he said.
Francis plans to tour the Holy Land May 24-26, stopping in Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, in a trip the pontiff said was conceived to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of a visit by Pope Paul VI to meet the head of the Orthodox Church.
The trip may stray from the historical to the current, if a visit to the Holy Land this month by a delegation of Catholic bishops is an indication. A report today on Vatican Radio described the poverty the delegation encountered in Gaza and speculated that the lives of illegal migrants would become more uncertain as Israel tightens its restrictions.
The pope chose a refugee camp on the tiny Italian island Lampedusa for his first trip outside Rome to condemn European indifference to African migrants. In his first tour outside Italy, the pope urged the youth of Rio de Janeiro to embrace non-violent activism to overcome apathy toward suffering the world.
On South Sudan, Parolin was “very interested in what he and they could do in order to try to assist” in ending the violence, Kerry said.
Also, Parolin raised issues involving U.S. health care policy that are of “special interest” to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to the Vatican statement.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case filed by the Little Sisters of the Poor. The order of Catholic nuns, who care for elderly people, say they shouldn’t be required to facilitate coverage of contraception under Obama’s health-care law by signing a certification shifting that responsibility to the group’s insurer.
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