(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. State Department is blaming its decision to close the U.S. embassy to the Vatican on the Benghazi terrorist attack, saying that the embassy is too much of a security risk for U.S. diplomats.
"Security is our top priority in making this move," the State Department said in a statement sent to CNSNews.com by department spokesperson Nicole Thompson.
"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," said the statement.
Vatican City is not legally a part of Rome or Italy, but is a separate sovereign state.
As a secondary reason for closing the U.S. embassy at the Vatican the State Department cited the need of the U.S. government to save money.
"This move will also save the U.S. government money," said the department's statement. "The Embassy to the Holy See will move into unused space on the U.S. government compound in Rome, eliminating the lease costs being paid for its current location and maximizing use of space in a building that we own. It will also reduce operating costs, as our Embassy to the Holy See will be able to share guard and other services. We reject any suggestion that this decision, made for security and administrative reasons, constitutes a downgrading of our relations with the Holy See."
Former U.S. Ambassador to Vatican Jim Nicholson does not see it that way. He blasted the State Department’s move, saying he has “zero doubt” that the 165 counties with whom the Vatican maintains diplomatic ties will view it as “a reflection of the diminished role the State Department and this administration have for this very important diplomatic post.”
“If you diminish the stature, you diminish the influence,” Nicholoson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican for four years, told CNSNews.com.
“And the stature of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See is critical for its moral suasion, particularly for a country like ours that prides itself on protecting civil rights, stopping human trafficking, fighting for religious freedom and feeding the world. If you diminish that influence, you seriously jeopardize those goals,” he added.
Nicholson also pointed out that the existing embassy in the Vatican already has “state-of-the-art security” and that Rome is not considered a high-risk diplomatic assignment.
The former ambassador also challenged State Dept. reassurances that “the United States continues to regard the Holy See as a key bilateral partner in promoting religious freedom, protecting religious minorities, advancing humanitarian causes, and mitigating conflicts around the world. We look forward to continuing our high levels of engagement with the Holy See.”
“It’s one thing to say it, but it’s contradictory [if you don’t] show it,” Nicholson said.
In an interview with Fox News “Spirited Debate” host Lauren Green Monday, Nicholson called the planned move a “rebuke” of the close relationship the U.S. has enjoyed with the Vatican and an “insult” to American Catholics.
U.S. Ambassador Ken Hackett, the former president of Catholic Relief Services who was appointed as the 10th U.S. ambassador to the Holy See by President Obama in June, told the National Catholic Register that “I see no diminishing in the importance of the relationship at all.”
“He’s a brand new ambassador, just appointed by this administration,” Nicholson said in response. “I would expect him to say that.”
Other former ambassadors to the Vatican, including Francis Rooney, Mary Ann Glendon, and Thomas Melady, are also criticizing the embassy relocation. Amb. Ray Flynn, who served under President Clinton, said consolidating the two embassies in one building “would send a very, very bad message.”
“The Vatican did a very quiet but effective job helping the United States bring peace and justice in places like the Middle East. We never had the kinds of trouble we’re having now, because the Vatican had a role,” Flynn said.
Dr. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, characterized the plan to move the embassy as “pure politics.”
“There are principled arguments one could make regarding security and cost. But the argument for security by this administration, which walked away from its responsibilities in Benghazi, is simply not plausible,” Donohue told CNSNews.com. “I share the belief of former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican that this is a way of diminishing the prestige of the Holy See.”
“Moreover, no administration in American history has been more fiscally reckless than the Obama administration, making it risible to suggest that all of a sudden they have discovered austerity,” he added.
January will mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Holy See.