ucanews.com reporter, TaipeiUpdated: March 14, 2013 11:20 PM GMT
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed on Friday that President Ma Ying-jeou will attend installation ceremonies for Pope Francis and is set to depart for Rome on Sunday.
Ma’s visit will be only the second time that a Taiwan president has visited the Vatican – the only state in Europe that maintains diplomatic ties with Taipei rather than Beijing.
Chen Shui-bian, Ma’s predecessor, attended the funeral of Blessed John Paul in 2005 but did not attend the installation of Benedict XVI.
One Church observer who asked not to be identified said such a trip would have been unlikely in the past and that his attendance at the installation of Pope Francis next week was telling.
“Ma’s visiting the pope was previously seen as impossible under the political shadow of Beijing. The installation as well as stagnating Beijing-Vatican relations has offered a rare chance for a diplomatic breakthrough for Taiwan,” the observer said.
The observer added that it was likely that Beijing had reached some kind of consensus with Taipei so that Ma’s visit to the Vatican would not cause the same tension that followed former President Chen’s so-called “funeral diplomacy” in 2005.
But early indications from Beijing indicate that China intends to take a hard line with the new pontiff, as a foreign ministry spokesperson on Thursday said China hopes for flexibility on Pope Francis’s part, including the severing of all diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Local media have reported that the Vatican has assured all the normal courtesies to Ma as head of state upon his arrival, and that Rome has sought Beijing’s understanding in the granting of visas for Ma’s delegation.
Monsignor Paul Russell, the papal representative in Taiwan, further noted that the Holy See was “happy to welcome” President Ma.
After his re-election to a second term last year, Ma – a non-practicing Catholic – expressed his interest in meeting then Pope Benedict in the Vatican to Archbishop Osvaldo Padilla, the papal envoy at his inauguration ceremony.
Meanwhile, the Bishops’ Conference of Taiwan will send a 10-member delegation, including bishops and lay Catholics, to attend the installation.
While media reports suggested that the delegation would be traveling with Ma, the bishops’ conference clarified that they were arranging their own travel to Rome.