Updated: November 16, 2015 08:36 PM GMT
Taiwanese presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen introduces her running mate, Catholic scholar Philip Chen Chien-jen, at a Nov. 16 press conference. (Photo from Tsai Ing-wen's Facebook page)
A Catholic academic will join frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen as the running mate in Taiwan's presidential election scheduled for January.
Philip Chen Chien-jen will vie to become Taiwan's new vice president alongside presidential hopeful Tsai, who made the announcement at a Nov. 16 press conference.
"He is a fervent Catholic; a person who you can rely on entirely," Tsai said in explaining her choice.
She pledged that Chen won't be a silent vice president if the pair are elected in the January vote.
Pre-election polls have favored Tsai, who is running with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.
Chen, an eminent epidemiologist, resigned as vice president of Academica Sinica, a Taiwanese research institute, for the opportunity to run for vice president.
Speaking of his choice to give up academic work, Chen said his wife and daughter prayed for him and that they felt God called on him to run for public office.
Chen told reporters he also came to his decision with the help of Archbishop John Hung Shan-chuan of Taipei. The archbishop told Chen that running for office aligns with church values.
"I reminded Chen that since the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the Catholic Church encourages the faithful to engage in politics to serve society and to instill church values," Archbishop Hung told ucanews.com.
He said Chen's participation in the election "would be a model for the 270,000 Catholics in Taiwan and would encourage more faithful to enter the political circle."
Observers see the January election as a pivotal moment for Taiwan. The current president, Ma Ying-jeou, is known to favor closer ties with China, while Tsai has a more independent stance. Some observers believe a win by Tsai could also impact Vatican-China relations, with Beijing likely to pressure the Vatican to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan if she puts forward an agenda that steers toward independence.
However, partnering with Chen, seen as a moderate who is not a member of any political party, might help Tsai to stabilize relations with the Vatican, or at least slow down the possible process of severing ties, said Austin Ou Chenjen, director of the Taiwan Catholic Mission Foundation, of which Chen is a board member.
In early November, Ma met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a cross-strait summit that drew criticism from sectors in Taiwan. But Tsai still understands that there are many Taiwanese people who do not favor independence, Ou said.
For his part, Chen — who, according to Archbishop Hung, attended Mass every morning with his wife since leaving public office in 2008 — was conferred a knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in 2010 and of the Order of St. Gregory the Great in 2013 for his contributions to the church.
When he was made a knight in 2013, Chen told ucanews.com that he would follow the instructions of Pope Francis in taking care of poor and marginalized families.
If Chen is elected in January, it will be the second time he has taken up a public post. He was named head of the Department of Health during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome — commonly known as SARS.