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President's Vatican visit 'unlikely'

Former ambassador to Vatican cites delicate political situation

President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan meets papal envoy Archbishop Osvaldo Padilla President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan meets papal envoy Archbishop Osvaldo Padilla
  • Francis Kuo, Taipei
  • Taiwan
  • May 25, 2012
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President Ma Ying-jeou expressed his desire to meet Pope Benedict XVI during a meeting this week with Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Osvaldo Padilla, but a former ambassador said yesterday that any such a meeting is unlikely.

The Vatican is the only European nation to maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which China maintains is part of its territory, and Archbishop Padilla was in Taiwan to attend newly re-elected Ma’s presidential inauguration.

“Courtesy demands reciprocity,” Ma told Archbishop Padilla during their meeting on Monday, adding that he had often received Vatican officials, had written to the pope and had worked to improve cross-strait relations for peace in line with the papal message last year for the World Day of Peace.

He added that he wants to express his gratitude to the pope for all the contributions made by the Catholic Church in Taiwan.

Tou Chu-seng, Taiwan’s former ambassador to the Holy See, said yesterday that any meeting would be problematic, and that several options would likely have to be ruled out largely on political grounds.

“One [option] is with his identity as a Catholic head of state. But the Vatican would take China-Vatican relations into consideration. Now that it is peaceful between Mainland China and Taiwan, this possibility is unlikely,” he said.

“The second way is to go along with the bishops when they make their ad limina visit to Rome to report on local Church affairs. This will give the impression of mixing up religion with politics and thus it is also not very possible.”

Tou offered a third alternative, attendance at a public audience in St. Peter’s Square, where he would sit among other guests.

“However, the Taiwan government will not accept a downgrading of the president,” he said, adding that inviting the pope to Taiwan is “even harder as it needs negotiations to flex diplomatic muscle.”

Tou, a professor of international relations, said that when former president Chen Shui-bian was seated among world leaders at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, it was “a rare moment in Taiwan diplomacy.”

“If Ma can meet the pope it would boost his governance, as his government has recently come under fire for controversial policies,” said one observer who asked not to be named.

Ma has been criticized for rising fuel and electricity prices, the lifting of restrictions on United States beef imports containing the additive ractopamine and introducing a capital gains tax. A meeting with the pope would deflect attention from such issues, the observer said.

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