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Taiwan president plans Vatican visit


Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou plans to visit the Vatican to attend the installation of the newly-elected pope, officials said Friday, in a move bound to upset China.

The Vatican is the only European nation to maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei instead of Beijing, which regards the island as Chinese territory awaiting unification and opposes any overseas visits by its leader.

"After the new pope was elected the foreign ministry initiated a plan for the president to visit the Vatican," vice foreign minister Vanessa Shih told reporters.

"This is in line with the diplomatic status of the two sides," she said, adding that a working group had been organised to arrange the trip.

The presidential office and the foreign ministry both said details of the trip will be unveiled later in the day.

China's communist regime severed ties with the Vatican in 1951 and six years later set up its own Catholic church, which does not recognise the Pope as its head.

Ties between Taipei and the Vatican are hanging in the balance, with the Holy See indicating that it is prepared to sacrifice diplomatic relations with Taiwan if religious freedom is guaranteed in mainland China and the pope can name Catholic bishops there.

Last time Taiwan's leader visited the Vatican was in 2005, when then president Chen Shui-bian attended the funeral of the late pope John Paul II.

An incensed Beijing refused to send a representative and filed a protest to Italy for issuing Chen a visa.

On Thursday, shortly after Pope Francis became the first ever Latin American pontiff, Ma offered his congratulations and said Taiwan -- which has an estimated 300,000 Catholics -- was "honoured to be a partner in peace" with the Vatican.

Up to 10 million "underground" Chinese Catholics are estimated to pledge allegiance to the pope and worship in unofficial churches, often being subject to police and government harassment.

Only 23 countries officially recognise Taipei rather than Beijing, which still claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan even though the two sides split in 1949 after a civil war.