Vatican welcomes ROC president's visit: charge d'affaires

Taipei, March 15 (CNA) The Vatican welcomes President Ma Ying-jeou's attendance at Pope Francis' inaugural Mass scheduled for March 19, the Holy See's charge d'affaires in Taipei said Friday. "The Holy See will be very happy to welcome His Excellency President Ma Ying-jeou, and will receive him with every honor," Monsignor Paul Russell said in a statement. Russell also thanked Ma for his congratulations on the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy at the Vatican on Wednesday. Vice Foreign Minister Vanessa Shih said earlier Friday that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) is arranging for President Ma and first lady Chow Mei-ching to attend the new pope's inaugural Mass. The Vatican is the Republic of China's only diplomatic ally in Europe. The two countries have maintained diplomatic ties since 1942. Shih said the arrangement is consistent with the strong state of bilateral relations between Taiwan and the Vatican. As to the composition of the ROC delegation, Shih said the Holy See has restricted each national group to five people to make it easier for the Vatican to receive the visitors. The ministry has sent a five-person list to the Presidential Office for approval, Shih said, adding that the list includes senior officials from the National Security Council and the MOFA. According to the MOFA's plan, the ROC delegation will fly to Rome via charter and is scheduled to arrive a day before the inaugural Mass. If the delegation is indeed headed by Ma, Shih said, it will not stay too long after the service. Asked whether China has tried to block Ma's visit to the Vatican via Rome, Shih did not give a direct reply. She said instead that ROC-Vatican relations have been very solid and that Ma's attendance at the occasion is congruent with international practice. China has listed the Holy See's termination of its diplomatic ties with Taiwan as one of the premises for improvement of Beijing-Vatican relations. Former ROC Ambassador to the Vatican Tou Chou-seng said Thursday that the Vatican is hoping to hold a dialogue with Beijing authorities because there are many Catholics in China. "But there is still a long way to go before the two sides can sit down to talk as their ties remain at a low ebb at the moment," he added. Pope Francis, the son of working-class Italian immigrants, is the first pontiff from the Americas, the first from the Jesuit order and the first to assume the name Francis. He will succeed the retired Benedict XVI. When Benedict XVI's predecessor Pope John Paul II died in April 2005, then-ROC President Chen Shui-bian made a rare visit to the Vatican to attend the funeral. Former first lady Wu Shu-jen also made a visit to the Vatican in July 2003 to attend Pope John Paul II's 25th anniversary as the leader of the Catholic Church. (By Angelea Tsai, Kelven Huang and Sofia Wu)