President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) expressed confidence that Taiwan and the Holy See would strengthen diplomatic ties under Pope Francis’ leadership, upon returning home last night after a three-day trip to the Vatican for the pope’s inaugural Mass.
Ma and a five-person delegation, including first lady Chow Mei-ching (周美青), landed at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport at 7pm. The president hailed the trip as a successful diplomatic overture in a brief speech at the airport.
“We have great expectations for the Republic of China’s relations with the Holy See,” he said.
The Vatican is the nation’s only diplomatic ally in Europe and the two countries have maintained diplomatic ties since 1942.
Ma described Pope Francis as friendly and low-key. During his brief meeting with the pope, Ma said he offered his congratulations to the pope in Spanish, and then continued the exchange in English.
Earlier yesterday, during a press conference in the Vatican City, Ma dismissed concerns about China’s urge for the Holy See to sever ties with Taiwan and called for a win-win solution to the matter.
“There are a lot of Catholics in both Taiwan and China, so the two sides should work together to avoid political confrontation over relations with the Vatican ... Cross-strait relations should be a virtuous circle of mutual benefit,” he said.
Prior to the inauguration Mass, Ma also held brief exchanges with other heads of state and delegations, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Ma said he and US Vice President Joe Biden had discussed economic exchanges between Taiwan and the US, including talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. Ma added that he also expected bilateral ties with Washington to be stronger in the future.
Separately yesterday, Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lin (林永樂) said Ma’s attendance at the pope’s installation was a powerful symbol of the amicable relationship between the Republic of China and the Holy See, and would help consolidate ties.
Lin said the demand by China that the Vatican cut ties with Taiwan did not mean much, because it was a reiteration of Beijing’s previous stance.
The ministry hoped that Taiwan would continue to solidify ties with the Holy See, based on exchanges in the fields of culture and education, as well as in joint cooperation in humanitarian efforts, he said.
Lin said the biggest problem between China and the Vatican was the former’s restrictions on freedom of religion, which has hampered progress in the two countries’ relationships.
Earlier this week, at a meeting of the legislature’s National Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Tsai Huang-liang (蔡煌瑯) said that the reason the Vatican has not yet appointed another cardinal to serve in Taiwan after Cardinal Paul Shan (單國璽) passed away in August last year had something to do with China.
In an e-mail to the Taipei Times, Monsignor Paul Russell, the Vatican’s top envoy to Taiwan, said there were no politics involved in the matter.
“The pope himself chooses whom to appoint as cardinal and when to make the announcement of that appointment. It is the pope’s own free decision. The most important responsibility of a cardinal, as we have seen in the last days, is to vote in the election of a new pope,” Russell said.
“The pope freely chooses the cardinals who will elect his successor. The appointment of a cardinal is a religious and spiritual matter because it involves religious and spiritual responsibilities,” he added.
The appointment of a cardinal is not a “diplomatic” and much less a “political” matter, and has no bearing whatsoever on the relations between the Holy See and any particular country, Russell said.