Taiwan president to visit Vatican as China grumbles

Taiwan's leader plans to visit the Vatican for the new pope's inauguration mass, officials said Friday, prompting China to warn Taipei against doing anything to inflame their delicate relationship.

In light of the planned trip by Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou for next Tuesday's mass, Beijing also renewed its demands for concessions from the Vatican in their long-running battle for supremacy over China's Catholics.

But the Vatican -- which recognises Taipei rather than Beijing as the legitimate representative of China -- said it would welcome Ma joining other foreign dignitaries who will attend the installation of Pope Francis.

Taiwan's Vice Foreign Minister Vanessa Shih said: "After the new pope was elected, the foreign ministry initiated a plan for the president to visit the Vatican.

"This is in line with the diplomatic status of the two sides," she told reporters, adding that Ma was scheduled to leave on a special flight late Sunday and return home after the mass, without visiting anywhere else in Europe.

The Vatican's embassy in Taiwan said that Ma would be given full pomp and ceremony.

"The Holy See will be very happy to welcome His Excellency President Ma Ying-jeou, and will receive him with every honour," Paul Russell, the top official at the embassy, said in a statement.

China's communist regime severed diplomatic 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.

Only 23 states officially recognise Taipei rather than Beijing, which still claims sovereignty over Taiwan even though the two sides split in 1949 after a civil war. The Vatican is the only state in Europe to recognise Taipei.

Although cross-strait ties have warmed up in recent years, China bitterly opposes any steps that imply recognition of Taiwan by other countries, including their hosting visits by senior government leaders from the island.

At a regular press briefing, China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Friday called on Taiwan to "bear in mind the overall situation and deal prudently with sensitive issues".

"We hope that the Vatican will take concrete steps to create conditions for the improvement of China-Vatican relations and gradually remove barriers," she added.

On Thursday Hua called on the Vatican to "sever its so-called diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognise the Chinese government as the sole legal representative of all of China".

The 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.

After Francis was named the first Latin American pontiff on Wednesday, 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 Chinese Catholics are estimated to pledge allegiance to the pope and worship in "underground" churches, often subject to police and government harassment.