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Taiwan offers second invitation to pope following Vatican-China deal

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (Center) and Vice President Chen Chien-jen (L) (Getty Images)

Taiwan’s government has issued a second invitation for Pope Francis to visit the country, a move which follows new developments in the Holy See’s relations with its rival in mainland China.

The country’s vice president Chen Chien-jen made the invitation during an audience with the Pope ahead of the Sunday canonization of his predecessor, Pope Paul VI.

The Pope “indicated that he would pray for Taiwan” and asked Chen to convey his greetings to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, Chen told reporters. He said that the Pope smiled when he was invited to visit Taiwan. Chen, who is Catholic, visited the Vatican for the 2016 canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Responding to news of the invitation, President Tsai said in a Facebook page post “I want to thank the pope for his greetings and blessings.”

“We will use active and concrete actions to continue to support the pope and the Vatican to spread common values of freedom, justice, peace and caring to every corner in the world,” she said.

This is the second invitation from Taiwanese political leaders to the Pope.

In September 2017, President Tsai officially forwarded Pope Francis an invitation to visit the country by way of Cardinal Peter Turkson, who was in Taiwan for the International Congress of the Apostleship of the Sea.

There are about 300,000 Catholics in Taiwan, about two percent of the population.

The split between China and Taiwan dates back to 1949, when nationalist forces left the mainland following the success of the communist military on the mainland. Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China, while the government on the mainland is the People’s Republic of China.

The Holy See has recognized the Taiwanese government, the Republic of China, since 1942, and does not currently have formal diplomatic relations with the government of the People’s Republic of China, which consolidated control of the mainland at the conclusion of a civil war in 1949.

In September, representatives of the Holy See and of China’s communist government signed a provisional agreement regarding the nomination of Catholic bishops that a Vatican communique said created conditions for “greater collaboration at the bilateral level.”

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the objective of the accord is “not political but pastoral” and will allow “the faithful to have bishops who are communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”

There are about 12 million Catholics in China, but for decades they have been split between an underground Catholic Church in full communion with the Holy See, sometimes subject to government persecution, and the government-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, whose bishops are appointed by the Communist government and have sometimes been ordained without papal approval. Some of the CPCA’s bishops serve as members of the Chinese Communist Party’s National People’s Congress.

In May, Taiwan’s bishops held their first ad limina visit with the Pope in 10 years.

During the visit, the Taiwanese bishops invited Pope Francis to visit the country on the occasion of the National Eucharistic Congress, scheduled to take place in March 2019.

There have long been concerns among some Taiwanese leaders that the Holy See would drop diplomatic relations with Taiwan if it secures a diplomatic agreement with China. China regards Taiwan as a rebel province, not a sovereign nation.

In the past, China has demanded that other countries end diplomatic recognition of Taiwan as a price for increased economic or political cooperation, and the Holy See is among the most prominent sovereign entities to recognize the island nation. According to Agence France Presse, the Holy See is the country’s only official ally in Europe. Taiwan has lost five allies since 2016, with developing nations like El Salvador, Panama, and the Dominican Republic cutting ties under pressure from Beijing.

The nunciature in Taipei has not been led by a nuncio since Oct. 25, 1971, when the United Nations ceased to recognize the Taipei-based government as the government of China. At that time, the Holy See transferred its nuncio from Taipei and did not appoint a successor. Since then, the mission in Taipei has been headed only by a chargé d’affairs.

Archbishop John Hung Shan-chuan of Taipei, speaking to Reuters in March, said the Church in Taiwan did not anticipate that the Holy See and mainland China would establish diplomatic relations, because to do so requires sharing “common values with each other.”

“The values the Vatican holds are different from those of the Chinese Communist Party. Building ties with the Vatican requires values including freedom and democracy,” he said.