By Sarah Mishkin in Taipei and Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
Pope Francis’ inauguration on Tuesday has given Taiwan’s president an unprecedented opportunity to visit Europe in his capacity as head of state, prompting a call from Beijing for the Vatican to cut diplomatic ties with Taipei.
Many in China are waiting to see whether the new Pope tries to restart an informal dialogue with Beijing that started and then stalled under his predecessor. But a government spokesman said the country stood by its position that the Vatican should first cut its ties with Taipei and not interfere with the Chinese Catholic Church, a government-run body which says it has the right to ordain bishops in China.
“We hope the Vatican will take concrete measures to gradually remove obstacles and create conditions for the improvement of Sino-Vatican relations,” a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said.
An influential Chinese Buddhist leader also chimed in, describing the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI as evidence of a crisis of faith in western society .
“Even the Pope can’t carry out his duties any more. If religious faith was in good shape this situation would be impossible,” said Shi Yongxin, abbot of the Shaolin Temple, the historic birthplace of Zen Buddhism. “The west’s religious problems are more serious than China’s.”
While there are an estimated 12m Catholics in China against fewer than half a million in Taiwan, the Vatican does not have formal relations with Beijing, which has been cracking down on unlicensed churchs and clergy who disagree with the government-backed church.
Instead, the Holy See recognises the Taiwan leadership – the only European state and one of only 23 globally to do so.
In the past few decades, most nations have dropped their recognition of Taiwan, known formally as the Republic of China, in favour of ties with Beijing. As Beijing claims Taiwan as a part of its territory, countries cannot maintain diplomatic ties with both, and Beijing frequently protests when countries issue visas to Taiwanese leaders.
The trip will be President Ma Ying-jeou’s first to Europe since his election in 2008. He touched down in Rome on Sunday evening with plans to attend the inaugural mass and visit Taiwan’s representative office in Italy.
For Taiwanese, the inauguration is an opportunity to see Taiwan acknowledged on the world stage, said Alexander Huang, a security expert at Taiwan’s Tamkang University. While a small number of Taiwanese are Catholic, many more follow other faiths, he pointed out.
“It’s the reality that Taiwan, at least the people in Taiwan, consider that we are ignored too much and Taiwan was not treated as a normal country,” said Mr Huang. “We are visiting one of the 23 so-called diplomatic allies, and it’s a tiny city-state, and it’s religious, and if China, if the communists, would believe that there is a god then they would understand why we are so happy to see the Pope.”
The relationship between China and Taiwan has warmed under President Ma and the two have signed a series of agreements to boost trade and travel between the two territories. Yet, say Taiwanese analysts and officials, China maintains pressure on other nations not to co-operate with Taiwan, keeping it isolated and frustrating its attempts to agree free-trade agreements with other nations.
Taiwan is not part of most multilateral organisations such as the UN and relies on the help of allies, such as the US, to keep it up-to-date on technical standards set by UN bodies in fields such as civil aviation.
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