State Department, former ambassador rebut pushback over embassy move - Catholic Courier

State Department, former ambassador rebut pushback over embassy move

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A State Department spokesman Nov. 25 said plans to move the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See to a different building in Rome are based on cost savings and security concerns.

In a teleconference organized by the agency, a senior State Department official speaking on background told reporters that the U.S. mission to the Holy See will move in 2015 out of its current location in "a decidedly ugly, slab-sided" former residential property in "an unprepossessing building."

Its new location, actually a block or two closer to the Vatican, will be a more elegant free-standing building in a complex that is home to the U.S. Embassy to Italy and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and other U.N. agencies, each in their own building, with entrances from different streets, the spokesman said.

The teleconference was arranged in response to news stories about the move that the official said have contained several "myths."

The plan has been criticized by some former U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See as downgrading the status of outreach to the Vatican. Jim Nicholson, who held the post 2001-2005, was quoted in the National Catholic Reporter as saying "it’s turning this embassy into a stepchild of the embassy to Italy."

But the most recent former ambassador, Miguel Diaz, who left the post a year ago after serving since 2009, told Catholic News Service in a Nov. 26 phone interview that such characterizations are not based on the facts.

He explained that he was closely involved in decision-making about moving the embassy and doesn’t believe there’s any element of downgrading the post. Plans for a move have been in the works since the administration of President George W. Bush.

The State Department official said the number of employees at the embassy would not change, nor would any of its operations be downsized. He also pointed out that no country has an embassy to the Holy See located within the boundaries of the Vatican city-state. All are in Rome itself.

The security and cost-saving reasons are legitimate and significant, Diaz said. But a third angle — the benefits to the embassy employees from being in a larger work space, with closer access to the functions of the larger U.S. Embassy to the Republic of Italy — also is important, he said.

The State Department official said the move would save about $1.4 million a year in operating costs, such as by not paying rent on the second building and consolidating security in one location. "It’s simply overhead," he said.

He described security concerns, such as the current embassy’s small setback from the street, which makes it difficult to protect. He also said that since the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in September 2012 in an attack at a diplomatic outpost, there’s been a push to ensure State Department employees around the world are well protected.

Diaz gave the example of dignitaries from the United States with a main purpose at one embassy but overlapping work to be done at another. Food and agriculture issues, for example, often bring people to the Vatican embassy and the outpost to the U.N. agency, he said.

Simply moving those visitors across town from the embassy to the Holy See to the embassy to Italy or the mission to the U.N. would entail security and transportation logistics that will not be a factor with the new compound approach, he said.

The larger embassy to Italy also is the location of tech staffers, who are shared by the other missions, and where there are services including recording studios, which Diaz said he visited several times to record messages for various events. The Italian embassy also has larger meeting rooms for conferences.

The residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican is not being moved. Diaz said that home typically is the scene of most of the social-type events the ambassador hosts.

The new building for the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See will have better space for small groups of visitors, Diaz said. In the current building, space for receiving guests is rather small, he said.

The State Department employee said the consolidation in Rome is similar to that being done in other cities where the U.S. has multiple diplomatic outposts to different organizations.

In Brussels, for example, the United States rented one block of a street, closed it and turned it into a pedestrian mall. The U.S. Mission to the European Union is housed in one building on the block and the mission to the nation of Belgium is in another.

Great Britain caused a similar stir when it consolidated its embassies in Rome in a similar fashion, largely for security reasons.

Diaz said comparisons to the Republic of Ireland’s decision in 2011 to close its embassy to the Holy See are inaccurate. That mission was closed altogether, with diplomatic functions shifted to the embassy to Italy, and it was widely described as a diplomatic slight to the Vatican.

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