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Taiwan: Twilight in Taipei

Running out of allies (Getty)

The island’s bishops make a last-ditch appeal to the Holy See

It is almost too symbolic. Last week, as Taiwan’s bishops arrived at the Vatican, they brought gifts for the Pope including a painting by Taiwanese artist Chia Shen-chen, “Merciful Sun Shines on Taiwan”. Taiwan is in need of mercy: a small island of 22 million souls, it lives in the shadow of China, which is steadily eroding its neighbour’s diplomatic strength.

Governments have to choose between recognising one or the other. Of the 19 states which pick Taiwan, perhaps the most important is the Holy See. But the Vatican’s talks with Beijing threaten that relationship, which may explain why the seven Taiwanese bishops came to Rome for their first papal visit since 2008.

This magazine understands that China is pressing the Holy See to cut ties with Taiwan. As we reported in March, one source quoted a senior member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference as saying: “Once Taiwan lose the Holy See then the only people left recognising them will be pointless islands no one has ever heard of.”

Although there are only 300,000 Catholics in Taiwan, the Church is now a crucial part of Taiwanese diplomacy. Before departing, the bishops held a meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen (pictured). Earlier this year, Tsai invited the Pope to Taiwan – an invitation he is unlikely to accept, but it sends a message: please don’t abandon us.

Not that anyone says that publicly. Taiwanese politicians, bishops and officials stress that the China talks don’t necessarily mean anything, and that the small nation is a natural partner for the Church. Matthew Lee, the ambassador to the Holy See, said: “During my meetings with Vatican officials or even with the Holy Father, I often hear praise for the climate of freedom and religious tolerance that characterise Taiwan.”

Last week, Cardinal Charles Bo of Burma told the US Catholic News Agency that Taiwan is currently the main reason for a slowdown in the talks. Both Rome and Beijing obviously want a deal. But the weak may yet confound the mighty.