Pope Francis on Monday met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the pontiff’s first face-to-face interaction with the new administration of President Joe Biden, who has been challenged by US bishops.
Blinken, on a tour of Europe, had a private audience with the Argentine pope after meeting with senior Vatican officials including Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who handles foreign relations.
Wearing a dark suit, Blinken was escorted through the Sistine Chapel as a guide gave him a description of each fresco, which he stopped to admire.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the 40-minute meeting with the pope took place in a “friendly atmosphere”, adding that the pontiff recalled his 2015 trip to the United States and expressed “his affection and attention to the people of the United States”.
The trip by Blinken, a secular Jew, comes amid division within the Catholic Church in the United States over the positions of Biden, a devout Catholic who regularly attends Mass.
Biden says he personally opposes abortion but, like most of his Democratic Party, supports the right to choose abortion guaranteed in a 1973 Supreme Court decision that remains deeply divisive in US politics.
Earlier this month US bishops agreed to draft a statement that could potentially deny the holy communion — one of the most sacred rituals in the church — to any US leader who supports abortion rights.
The pope has previously spoken by telephone with Biden and shares some of the priorities of the new administration, including stepping up the fight against climate change and showing more compassion to refugees.
Francis, both the first Jesuit pope and the first pontiff from the Americas, had an uneven relationship with Donald Trump despite the previous president’s opposition to abortion.
He criticised Trump’s push to seal off Mexico with a wall. He declined last year to meet Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, concerned about being seen as showing support close to an election, although he met earlier with Pompeo
Pope Francis will next week meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the pontiff’s highest-ranking talks yet with the new US administration, officials said Friday.
Blinken, on a tour of Europe, will see both Pope Francis and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the pope’s de facto foreign minister, on Monday at the Vatican, a State Department spokesperson said.
Francis has spoken in support of some key goals of President Joe Biden’s administration, including stepping up the fight against climate change and showing compassion towards refugees.
The Vatican also played a key role in the behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the last Democratic administration under Barack Obama in normalising relations with Cuba, a process reversed by former president Donald Trump.
Trump had an at times difficult relationship with Francis, who during the mogul’s 2016 run for president criticised his push to build a wall on the US border with Mexico.
The pope notably declined to meet Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, shortly before last year’s election, fearing being used for Trump’s political benefit.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Cairo Wednesday as he presses efforts to shore up an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
The US top diplomat already met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to throw Washington’s support behind the Friday truce that ended 11 days of heavy Israeli bombing of Gaza and rocket fire from the enclave into Israel.
After talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at his headquarters in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Blinken vowed to rebuild US relations with the Palestinians by reopening a consulate in Jerusalem, as well as giving millions in aid for the war-battered Gaza Strip.
The announcements signalled a break with US policy under former president Donald Trump, who had shuttered the diplomatic mission for Palestinians in 2019 and slashed aid to the Palestinian Authority.
In the long term, Blinken evoked the “possibility of resuming the effort to achieve a two-state solution, which we continue to believe is the only way to truly assure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and of course to give the Palestinians the state they’re entitled to”.
After meeting earlier Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he reiterated support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, adding that they must not benefit from the international reconstruction aid.
In Cairo, Blinken is to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before flying on to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II.
Unlike the United States and many European governments, which boycott Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement as a terror group, Egypt maintains regular contacts.
Egypt was also the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
– Rebuilding Gaza –
Cairo has sent delegations to both Tel Aviv and Gaza to watch over the implementation of the ceasefire and has also been coordinating international relief and reconstruction aid for the Palestinian territory, which has been under Israeli blockade for nearly 15 years.
US President Joe Biden spoke by telephone with his Egyptian counterpart on Monday for the second time in less than a week to discuss the relief effort.
Blinken said Wednesday the United Sates was in the process of providing more than $360 million in assistance to the Palestinian people.
This included $250 million in economic, development, security and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people announced in March and April.
On top of that, the administration intended to provide $75 million in additional aid to the Palestinians, as well as $5.5 million in immediate disaster assistance for Gaza, and nearly $33 million for an emergency humanitarian appeal by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
“All of these funds will be administered in a way that benefits the Palestinian people — not Hamas, which has only brought misery and despair to Gaza,” Blinken said.
Last week, Sisi pledged $500 million to help reconstruction efforts in Gaza.
Even before the fighting halted, he had sent ambulances into Gaza to bring out some of the most seriously wounded for treatment in Egyptian hospitals.
He has since sent in food and medical supplies through Egypt’s Rafah border crossing, the only entry point to Gaza not controlled by Israel.
– British FM in Jerusalem –
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab meanwhile travelled to Jerusalem Wednesday, also to back international efforts to shore up the ceasefire.
Speaking ahead of planned talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Raab urged an end to the “cycle of violence” through a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The events of the last month demonstrate the urgent need to make genuine progress towards a more positive future for both Israelis and Palestinians, and break (the) cycle of violence that has claimed so many lives,” he said.
The latest military escalation started after clashes in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site, which is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.
Israeli security forces had moved in on Palestinian worshippers there towards the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
They had also sought to quell protests against the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from homes in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make way for Jewish settlers.
Israeli air strikes and artillery fire on Gaza killed 254 Palestinians, including 66 children, and wounded more than 1,900 people in 11 days of conflict from May 10, the health ministry in Gaza says.
Rocket and other fire from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Arab-Israeli teenager, an Israeli soldier, one Indian national and two Thai workers, medics say. Some 357 people in Israel were wounded.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that a US envoy would travel to the Middle East to seek to calm tensions as he implored Israel to avoid civilian deaths.
Hady Amr, the deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of Israeli and Palestinian affairs, was leaving Wednesday and will meet both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, US officials said.
“He will urge on my behalf and on behalf of President Biden a de-escalation of violence,” Blinken told reporters.
In the latest high-level interaction, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called his Israeli counterpart, Benny Gantz, and backed Israel’s “legitimate right to defend itself and its people” while also urging steps to restore calm, the Pentagon said.
A senior US official separately said to expect further high-level contacts, including with Jordan and Egypt, although Washington does not speak to Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group.
Blinken described scenes of dead Palestinian civilians, including children, as “harrowing” but defended Israel’s assault on Gaza in response to rocket fire by Hamas militants.
“I think Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything they possibly can to avoid civilian casualties, even as it is rightfully responding in defense of its people,” Blinken said.
But Blinken said there was a “very clear and absolute distinction between a terrorist organization, Hamas, that is indiscriminately raining down rockets — in fact, targeting civilians — and Israel’s response defending itself.”
President Joe Biden’s administration earlier appealed to ally Israel to reroute a flashpoint parade in Jerusalem and prevent evictions of Palestinians in the holy city, the immediate trigger for the new round of violence.
Taking more nuance after the militantly pro-Israel administration of Donald Trump, Blinken renewed US support for the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state.
“This violence takes us further away from that goal,” Blinken said.
“We believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live with safety and security and will continue to engage with Israelis, Palestinians and other regional partners to urge de-escalation and to bring calm.”
Blinken’s meeting with Buhari “will underscore our shared goals of strengthening democratic governance, building lasting security, and promoting economic ties and diversification,” the US State Department statement said.
The US top diplomat will also meet with Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama to “reiterate the value of our bilateral relationship and discuss issues of shared importance.”
The visit includes a health partnership event where Blinken is expected to meet with a Nigerian health care worker.
Read the full statement from the US Department of State:
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will embark tomorrow, April 27, on his first virtual trip to Africa, where he will visit Kenya and Nigeria and engage with young people from across the continent.
Secretary Blinken will begin his virtual travel to Africa meeting with Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) alumni. In a “Ten Questions with Tony” event, YALI alumni will have an opportunity to engage with the Secretary on a range of topics, including the role of youth in the future of Africa, economic development, democracy and good governance, climate change, and health. Through YALI, the United States works with public, private sector, and civil society partners across the continent to develop initiatives and economic opportunities to support the creativity, innovativeness, and energy of Africa’s youth.
Secretary Blinken will then travel virtually to Nigeria, where he will underscore our shared goals of strengthening democratic governance, building lasting security, and promoting economic ties and diversification. People-to-people connections, underpinned by the dynamic Nigerian diaspora in the United States, amplify and strengthen our relationship. During his visit, Secretary Blinken will meet with President Buhari and Foreign Minister Onyeama to reiterate the value of our bilateral relationship and discuss issues of shared importance. Secretary Blinken will also participate in a health partnership event to underscore our collaboration to combat the pandemic as well as long-term U.S. investments in combatting infectious diseases. He will meet with a beneficiary of a PEPFAR program and a Nigerian health care worker.
The Secretary’s virtual trip to Kenya will celebrate our 57-year bilateral relationship. Secretary Blinken will meet with President Kenyatta and Cabinet Secretary Omamo to reaffirm our strategic partnership, discuss future cooperation to promote democracy and expand trade, and explore avenues to address global challenges, including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Secretary will also visit Kenyan-based renewable energy companies that, thanks in part to U.S. government engagement, are a model of innovative clean energy alternatives in Africa. Finally, as part of our solidarity with Kenya amid the global pandemic, we will highlight a U.S.-donated Mobile Field Hospital to which the United States is providing essential COVID-19 medical supplies through AFRICOM and the Massachusetts National Guard’s State Partnership Program.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday condemned a Russian court’s jail sentence of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and demanded his release.
“We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly,” Blinken said in a statement.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday condemned Russian authorities for their “harsh” response to protests across the country that called for the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
“The U.S. condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight,” Blinken said on his official Twitter account.
“We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights,” he added, after Russian police detained more than 1,000 people, including 142 in Moscow.
Authorities have ramped up pressure on the opposition with arrests and criminal probes, including several Navalny aides.
A second weekend of protests began in several cities Sunday including Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Vladivostok in the Far East, where several dozen gathered in a central square despite police closing it off ahead of the rally.
Navalny, the main rival of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was detained at Moscow airport in mid-January after flying back to Russia from Germany where he was recovering from an August poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.
The 44-year-old opposition leader’s subsequent release of an investigation that accused Putin of owning a secret $1.5 billion Black Sea palace helped spur the largest street protests in Russia in years, and forced the Russian leader to deny that he or his relatives own the property.
A senior U.S. official said on Friday that there are signs that Nigeria’s Boko Haram terrorist group is sending fighters to join Islamic State in Libya to increase cooperation between the two groups.
Nigeria has asked the United States to sell it aircraft to fight Boko Haram, which has been waging a seven-year insurgency in the north and last year pledged loyalty to Islamic State, which is active in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Little is known about the extent of cooperation between the two radical Islamist groups.
But Western governments worry that Islamic State’s growing presence in north Africa and ties with Boko Haram could herald a push south into the vast, lawless Sahel region and create a springboard for wider attacks.
Longer Than Thought
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said there were “reports” that Boko Haram fighters were going to Libya, where Islamic State had established a large presence, taking advantage of security chaos.
“We’ve seen that Boko Haram’s ability to communicate has become more effective. They seem to have benefited from assistance from Daesh,” he said, using a derogatory name for Islamic State. There were also reports of material and logistical aid.
“So these are all elements that suggests that there are more contacts and more cooperation, and this is again something that we are looking at very carefully because we want to cut it off,” Blinken told reporters in Nigeria.
Blinken said the United States was helping Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram with armoured vehicles. But he declined to comment on a request by Nigeria to sell it aircraft.
U.S. officials told Reuters this month that Washington wanted to sell up to 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria in recognition of President Muhammadu Buhari’s army reforms. Congress needs to approve the deal.
President Muhammadu Buhari had said that the nation was “not bothered initially, of what intentional connection Boko Haram has until they claimed that they are loyal to ISIS”.
He associated the crisis with incidents in the Sahel region, saying that what happened in Libya in the Sahel, in terms of trained personnel and weapons, had compounded the problem, making it last longer than thought.
He also said that Nigeria’s border with neighbouring countries, mostly in the eastern region, was difficult to monitor.
“We have more than 1,500 kilometres neighbourhood in an area where donkeys, oxen, camels can cross any time of the day. It is not easy to guide such borders,” President Buhari added.
The Multi-National Joint Task Force Commander has drawn the attention of member states to the need for improved allowances for the troops and purchase of equipment for detecting and destroying IEDs.
Meanwhile, the Executive Secretary of the Lake Chad Basin Commission is asking member states to begin to fix attention on developmental programmes which will address the root causes of insecurity in the region.