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Mon, Jan 31, 2000 - Page 4 News List

Pilgrimage could bring direct link

MATSU A direct boat service is being discussed for the 100,000 pilgrims who go to the Chinese island of Meizhou every year to celebrate the Sea Goddess' birthday

By Catherine Sung  /  STAFF REPORTER

Religious representatives from Taiwan traveled to the Chinese province of Fujian yesterday to conduct talks on a direct boat service during the high pilgrimage season to worship Matsu (媽祖), Goddess of the Sea.

Cheng Min-kun (鄭銘坤), the vice chairman of the Chenlan Temple (鎮瀾宮) told the Tapei Times that Chinese officials have agreed on a direct boat service to Fujian and it is up to the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) to determine whether such a move is possible

"The local authorities have told us that they have already been authorized by the Chinese central government to accept as many pilgrimages as possible," Cheng said

He added that in the past, the temple had to cut through central government red tape to pre-approve the list of pilgrims.

Chen said an estimated 3,000 followers from his temple would travel to Meizhou Temple (湄洲媽祖廟) this year.

"It is up to the MAC now to determine whether there will be a direct service. Otherwise, the boats will have to dock at a third country," he said.

The MAC announced earlier this month that quasi-direct passenger boat services to China would be allowed after the March presidential election.

Instead of fully liberalizing sea links, the proposal still requires boats to dock in a third country while paperwork is processed.

The only difference would be that passengers would not be required to change boats in the third country.

The Taiwan delegation, led by Chenlan Temple's chairman Yen Ching-piao (顏清標) is in Fujian to discuss the direct boat service from Taichung to Meizhou Island, where the sea goddess Matsu is believed to have originated.

Official estimates show up to 100,000 pilgrims from Taiwan travel each year to the temple to attend celebrations commemorating Matsu's birthday.

Her birthday is on the 27th day of the third lunar month, which falls on the first day of May in the Roman calendar this year.

Because of Taiwan's ban on direct sea links with China, the pilgrims have just two choices if they are to go to Meizhou.

They can either go with the cheaper option of sailing illegally by fishing boat to Fujian.

Or they can transit through Hong Kong to Fujian.

But sea passage across the Taiwan Strait is often dangerous, particularly during the time of the pilgrimage.

This coincides with the northeast monsoon season and climaxes with the Sea Goddess' Ascension Day on Sept. 9.

Cheng said the boat service is expected to begin in June or July this year.

The direct four-hour boat journey from Taichung to Meizhou should be available one to four times a month. However, the service is expected to be one-way only.

Taiwanese pilgrimages would be allowed to disembark using the so-called "Taiwan compatriot's travel document" (台胞證) and stay for up to three months.

The document is a special permit issued by the Chinese government for Taiwan citizens who wish to travel to China.

Officials at the MAC had suggested that foreign registered chartered ships be allowed to shuttle between Taichung and Meizhou, via a third port of call such as Hong Kong or Ishigaki Island in southern Japan, to help facilitate the movement of pilgrims.

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