Taiwan VP to visit Vatican amid China progress

TAIPEI, Taiwan – Taiwan will send its first envoy in 3 years to visit the Vatican – it's only ally in Europe – in a bid to cement ties as signs grow that rival Beijing and the Holy See are working towards resuming relations.

Vice President Chen Chien-jen, a Catholic who has long had ties with the Vatican, will leave on September 2 for the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and will also meet senior officials, attend a Mass and visit Assisi, birthplace of St Francis, during a 6-day visit, the foreign ministry said.

"We share the same values with the Holy See based on religious freedom and human rights. Our relations with the Holy See are very stable and there's no problem looking from now to the future," said deputy foreign minister Wu Chih-chung Wednesday, August 24, when announcing the trip.

Beijing and Taipei have battled for decades over their allies.

China still sees self-ruling Taiwan as part of its territory and demands that allies of Beijing must renege any official ties with the island.

There was a truce in the battle for friends under previous Beijing-friendly president Ma Ying-jeou.

But former Taiwan ally Gambia established ties with Beijing, two months after China-skeptic Tsai Ing-wen was elected president in January. There is speculation that Panama might follow suit.

Chen's visit comes after the bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong, said recently China was willing to reach an "understanding" with the Vatican over the contentious issue of the appointment of bishops.

The Holy See is one of only 22 states in the world that recognize Taipei instead of Beijing.

In 2013, Ma Ying-jeou became the first Taiwanese leader to meet the pope when he attended the inauguration of Pope Francis, sparking an angry response from Beijing despite improving cross-strait ties at that time.

There are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, but the Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with Beijing since 1951, two years after the founding of the communist People's Republic.

Previous attempts to restore ties have floundered over Beijing's insistence that the Vatican must give up its recognition of its rival Taiwan and promise not to interfere in religious issues in China.

But in May the Vatican's secretary of state, Pietro Parolin, said relations between China and the Catholic Church were "in a positive phase."

In February, Pope Francis lavished praise on China in a move widely seen as part of Vatican moves to improve relations, pointedly avoiding any mention of Chinese restrictions on freedom of worship. – Rappler.com