Taiwan prez meets new pope, irks China

Taipei (The China Post/ANN) - Taiwan's president Ma Ying-jeou and first lady Christine Chow had front-row seats at St. Peter's Square, where a crowd of dignitaries and other well-wishers watched the investiture of Pope Francis on Tuesday.

Ma and the first lady arrived at 9 am, sporting shades under Rome's sunny skies. The couple was greeted by heads of state, including President of Chile Sebastian Pinera, as they made their way through the open-air square.

Meanwhile, a plainly-vested Francis prayed at the tomb of the apostle Peter inside St. Peter's Basilica before facing the crowd in his two-hour installation Mass.

Ma's seat at the Mass was in the first row opposite to St. Peter's Basilica, with Chow at his left and Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla to his right. The crowd included representatives from over 130 nations and leaders of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist faiths.

After the two-hour Mass, Francis spoke with assembled foreign dignitaries including Ma and a beaming first lady. Ma exchanged a handshake and offered congratulations in what was the first meeting between a Taiwan president and a pope.

Last Wednesday, Francis was elected successor to Benedict XVI, who resigned after an eight-year papacy citing health reasons. Ma and the first lady are in Rome as official guests to the pope-elect's installation Mass. The Holy See is Taiwan's only diplomatic ally in Europe, and one of just 23 allies in the world.

Ma's invite has irked Beijing, which last Thursday urged the Holy See to break ties with Taiwan and cease "interfering with China's internal affairs." For years, the Holy See has voiced willingness to transfer formal recognition from Taipei to Beijing on the condition that China grants its Catholic Church freedom of worship.

Ma takes note

The Taiwanese president has said that China's recent remarks to the Holy See should not be taken lightly, according to presidential spokeswoman Garfie Li.

On Monday at Vatican City's Taiwan Embassy, Ma said that "some people" see China's response as "standard" and even "less harsh" than it was in years past, Li told reporters yesterday.

But Ma added that even so, China's statements should not be taken lightly. Taiwan must continue to be prudent in its cross-strait interactions, while continuing to bolster its national defenses.

At the Taiwan Embassy, Ma reiterated his policy to maintain "Three Lines of National Defense": institutionalised relations for China, soft power and international support.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs deputy spokesman Calvin Ho said yesterday that Ma's purpose in Rome is to attend the investiture, but that the president does not rule out unofficial interactions with other heads of state. Ma, who is staying at the same hotel as many other world leaders, may have good opportunities for dialogue, according to Ho.

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