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Taiwan

Pope Francis has a Taiwan problem

Beijing wants the Vatican to derecognize the Republic of China but the way forward for Rome is fraught with danger

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Pope Francis has a Taiwan problem

Pope Francis waves to worshippers from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Aug. 23 during the weekly Angelus prayer. (Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)

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Fresh from his effective conquest of Hong Kong, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is rattling his saber louder regarding Taiwan.

As talks progress between the Vatican and Beijing on a new deal on bishop appointments, or extension of the existing deal signed in September 2018, the Vatican is facing an increasingly thorny problem with Taiwan: its diplomatic derecognition of the effectively independent nation is something that Beijing craves.

Indeed, the Vatican is now one of only a dozen or so mainly small Latin American, Pacific and African nations that officially recognize Taiwan — whose official name is the Republic of China (ROC) — over the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In recent decades, Beijing has waged a campaign, mainly using economic blandishments and doubtless covert threats, to get the dwindling numbers who recognize the ROC into the PRC column.

The Vatican is now the only European nation, as tiny as it is, to recognize the ROC. The historic reasons for this are clear: the Holy See’s representatives were kicked out of the PRC in 1951 by the avowedly atheist ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its then despotic ruler-for-life Mao Zedong.

This left Rome with no choice but to support the “China” that remained, the rump of the Kuomintang Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek who had fled to Taiwan after losing the 1945-49 civil war to the CCP.

Indeed, it was not for another three decades, when under Deng Xiaoping’s program of reform and opening up, that organized religion was finally allowed some space to begin rebuilding and then flourishing to the point where there are many tens of millions of Christians (estimates range from 60-100 million) practicing in China today.

But as Christianity flourished and the Catholic Church rebuilt through both the CCP-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the so-called underground or unofficial church loyal to Rome, the Vatican failed to build some sort of official relationship with Beijing.

Two years ago, that changed in a first step to normalize the appointment of bishops to halt a situation where prelates were named by Beijing without the consent of the pope, rendering the appointment illegitimate. The deal saw Rome officially recognize the CCP but explicitly not the CPP-controlled Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC).

The provisional deal has always been pitched as the start of a bigger relationship and one of the next logical steps would be recognition of the BCCCC. Here lies another issue for the Vatican as it already officially recognizes the Chinese Regional Bishops' Conference of Taiwan. Beijing insists that countries who deal with it on any diplomatic level recognize the “one China policy,” which effectively means they choose between Beijing and Taipei. It would be hard to see Beijing making an exception for the Vatican.

Recognition of the ROC has the Vatican in something of an exquisite bind. While it has ardently and very publicly made no secret of its desire to gain some sort of working relationship with Beijing, which it has now done, it must be careful with its next steps.

Small it may be, but the potency of the Vatican name and the fact that it also represents the world’s one billion-plus Catholics means that Beijing will be craving its recognition and the halo effect that would come with it, especially with Pope Francis as its head of state.

It will not have escaped the ruling CCP that the pope has particular cachet across the world, including the increasingly secular West.

There appears to be will on both sides to move closer together but the method seems elusive at present.

Now would be a dangerous time for the Holy See to even consider switching its diplomatic recognition away from Taiwan as the island is under threat from Beijing.

Pope Francis has already been criticized from within the Church for his silence on Chinese human rights abuses, particularly by the right wing that is working against his papacy.

Indeed, even a refreshing of the 2018 deal will prove controversial this time around with the exposure of the genocide being carried out by Beijing on the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, its crunching of freedom in Hong Kong and its persecution of Catholics, other Christians and Muslims on the mainland.

Any hint that the Vatican may abandon Taiwan would surely cause an uproar that even Francis could not ignore.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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