President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and first lady Chow Mei-ching (周美青) will lead an official delegation to attend Pope Francis’ inauguration Mass in Rome on Tuesday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday.
The five-member delegation will leave for Rome tomorrow evening to attend the Mass at 9:30am on Tuesday and fly back to Taiwan that evening. The three other members of the delegation are National Security Council Secretary-General Jason Yuan (袁健生), Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Vanessa Shih (史亞平) and Fu Jen Catholic University president Vincent Chiang (江漢聲).
Shih said the Holy See has invited the president to visit some churches during his short trip. Ma will also visit the nation’s embassy and meet with Taiwanese Catholic groups in Rome.
In light of Ma’s planned trip, Beijing yesterday renewed its demands for concessions from the Vatican in their long-running battle for supremacy over Chinese Catholics and called on Taiwan to “bear in mind the overall situation and deal prudently with sensitive issues.”
Shih dismissed Beijing’s call for the Vatican to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and said the city-state remained a strongly supportive ally of Taiwan.
“The diplomatic ties between the Republic of China [ROC] and the Vatican remain strong, and we believe the Holy See cherishes our friendship deeply. The president’s trip to Rome is the best example of our strong ties with the Holy See,” she said.
The ROC and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1942.
The Vatican’s top envoy to Taiwan, Monsignor Paul Russell, said the Holy See “will be very happy” to welcome Ma and “will receive him with every honor.”
Russell said the Holy See is grateful to Ma for his congratulatory message on the occasion of the election of Pope Francis.
The last time a Taiwanese president visited the Vatican was in 2005, when then-president Chen Shui-bian attended the funeral of pope John Paul II.
An incensed Beijing refused to send a representative and filed a protest to Italy for issuing Chen a visa.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected as Pope Francis on Wednesday. Shih said the ministry first planned for the first couple to attend the new pope’s inauguration followed the resignation of pope Benedict XVI, and began preparations for the trip immediately after the new pope was elected.
The ministry did not announce Ma’s trip until yesterday. Its decision to invite only two media outlets — the Central News Agency and SET-TV — to cover the event also raised protests from other media outlets.
After confirming the first couple’s attendance on Thursday, the ministry informed the two news outlets later that night to prepare for the trip to Rome. The ministry will cover the expenses of the trip for the accompanying journalists.
Shih blamed the controversial selection of media outlets on the limited time to prepare for the trip and said the ministry and the Presidential Office tried to make a fair selection by inviting the two media outlets, which are on the rotational shift next week to cover Ma’s events in the Presidential Office, to cover the trip.
“As the two media outlets will provide news and footage for local press and TV stations, the ministry will pay for their trips,” she said.
According to the ministry’s plan, the delegation will fly to Rome at 11:20pm tomorrow night via chartered plane and will take the chartered flight back to Taiwan at 22:30pm on Tuesday.
Shih said the ministry has instructed the representative office in Rome to arrange for a courtesy visa for the first couple to meet international conventions.
Additional reporting by Shih Hsiu-chuan and AFP