President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and first lady Chow Mei-ching (周美青) arrived in Rome yesterday to attend Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass at the Vatican today, as controversy rose over a present that Ma was expected to give the new pope.
A Holy See protocol official received the five-person delegation at the Fiumicino Airport in Rome.
Despite the absence of diplomatic ties between Italy and Taiwan, the Italian government granted Ma every courtesy and honor it accords to other heads of state upon his arrival aboard a China Airlines chartered flight.
Back in Taipei, Ma’s administration came under fire for its choice of a Franz vase embossed with the design of a magpie as a gift to the new pope.
On Saturday, Presidential Office spokesperson Lee Chia-fei (李佳霏) described the gift as a symbol of joy and blessing because magpies are a good omen according to Taiwanese beliefs.
However, the choice of gift has also drawn criticism.
Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Chiu Chih-wei (邱志偉) said it showed that the government “lacked an understanding of European culture.”
Chiu said a senior high-school student left a message on his Facebook page saying that Ma “does not have an ounce of common sense because magpies are viewed as a bad omen in Europe.”
“How could you not know about this?” he asked Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lin (林永樂) and Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧) at a legislative committee meeting.
Although the magpie is a symbol of good luck and good fortune in “Chinese culture,” in Europe it is “an omen of foreboding, a sign of a forthcoming disaster, trouble or death,” Chiu said, describing the gift as “inappropriate.”
“Is that a curse?” he asked.
Lin said a final decision on the gift has not been made.
“All opinions about the gift will be taken into account. We have prepared some other Franz items with different designs as backup gifts,” Lin said. “President Ma and the delegation in Rome will make the final decision.”
Lin said the Franz vase with the magpie design was the “initial choice” for Ma to present as a gift to Pope Francis, but “we understand [your] concerns.”
The ministry has consulted with the Vatican’s top envoy to Taiwan, Monsignor Paul Russell, about the gift and he “respected the choice and was satisfied with it,” Lin said.
Lin said the ministry included the vase as a gift option at the suggestion of Francis Chen (陳立恆), chairman of Franz Collection Inc, who said that the item is a celebration of the inauguration of the new pontiff.
Chiang thanked Chiu for his advice, but declined to comment.
Late last night, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Vanessa Shih (史亞平), who is in Rome with Ma’s entourage, told reporters Ma still has time to consider his choice of gift before it is delivered by protocol officers through official channels.
Meanwhile, sources said the magpie vase would not be presented to Pope Francis.
The ministry declined to comment.
Russell, the charge d’affaires of the Holy See, said in an e-mail to the Taipei Times: “If President Ma decides he would like to give a gift to Pope Francis, no doubt Pope Francis will be grateful for whatever gift the President chooses to give him.”
“When one person wants to give a gift to another person, it is the person who gives the gift who decides what to give. The person who receives the gift is grateful for the kindness of the giver,” he said.
Meanwhile, reporters covering the Presidential Office filed a letter of complaint on Sunday to protest a decision by the office to allow only four reporters from two media outlets — Central News Agency and SET-TV — to travel with Ma on the chartered flight to the Vatican, with all expenses covered by the government.
Acknowledging the complaint, the Presidential Office allowed more journalists to sign up for the trip, leaving reporters with only about 11 hours to prepare for departure. Ten reporters from six media outlets traveled with Ma.
Lin said the original decision on limiting the number of reporters traveling with Ma was made by the Presidential Office and that the ministry acted according to that decision.
Russell said that having a few more or a few less reporters from Taiwan cover the pope’s inauguration does not make any difference to the Holy See Press Office, which has accredited more than 6,000 journalists in recent days.
The number of journalists and the decision when to include them in the entourage presented absolutely no inconvenience to the Holy See whatsoever, he said.
Accreditation is granted through the Holy See Web site, Russell added.
Additional reporting by CNA