TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has sent a special envoy to attend this weekend’s beatification of former Pope John Paul I, saying it demonstrates the close relations between the island and the Vatican, which has been courting China.
The Vatican is Chinese-claimed Taiwan’s sole European diplomatic ally, and Taipei has watched with concern as Pope Francis has moved to improve relations with China. The democratically governed island has formal ties with only 14 countries, largely due to Chinese pressure.
In a statement late on Friday, Taiwan’s presidential office said former Vice President Chen Chien-jen, a devout Catholic, would attend Sunday’s ceremony as part of a nine-day trip.
The visit “demonstrates the close friendship between the two countries,” it said. Chen will also take part in a reception with the pope for members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, it added.
Tsai expressed hope that Chen would “continue to deepen the friendship between Taiwan and the Vatican, and continue to protect the shared belief in universal values between Taiwan and the Vatican”.
He went to the Vatican three times while in office, in 2016, 2018 and 2019, including attending the canonisation ceremony of Mother Teresa.
Pope Francis told Reuters in July said that while the Vatican’s secret and contested agreement with China on the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops is not ideal, he hoped it could be renewed in October because the Church takes the long view.
The deal, which was struck in 2018 and comes up for renewal every two years, was a bid to ease a longstanding divide across mainland China between an underground flock loyal to the pope and a state-backed official church.
Both sides now recognise the pope as supreme leader of the Catholic Church.
China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but in recent years the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.
Taiwan puts no restrictions on freedom of faith and has a thriving religious community that includes Christians, Buddhists and Muslims.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by William Mallard)