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Taiwan’s vice-president to visit Vatican amid signs Beijing and Holy See drawing closer

Taiwan will send its first envoy in three years to visit the Vatican – it’s sole ally in Europe – in a bid to cement ties as signs grow that Beijing and the Holy See are working towards resuming relations.

Taiwanese Vice-President Chen Chien-jen, a Catholic who has long had ties with the Vatican, would leave next week for the canonisation of Mother Teresa and meet senior officials, attend a mass and visit Assisi, birthplace of St Francis, during a six-day visit, the foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

“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,” deputy foreign minister Wu Chih-chung said, when announcing the trip.

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

Vatican is taking ‘new approach to China’

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 mainland-sceptic 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 Hon, said recently the mainland 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 that recognise Taipei instead of Beijing. In 2013, Ma 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 on the mainland, but the Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with Beijing since 1951.

Pope Francis’ global appeal opens pathway to improving ties between China and the Vatican

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

But in May the Vatican’s secretary of state, Pietro Parolin, said relations between Beijing and the Catholic Church were “in a positive phase”.

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