03/18/2013, 00.00
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Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to attend Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass. No one from Beijing

by Bernardo Cervellera
Ma Ying-jeou is the second president to attend a ceremony at the Vatican. At the funeral of Pope John Paul II Chen Shui-bian was present, raising the ire of Beijing. Relations between China and the Holy See blocked over the appointment of bishops. The advent of Xi Jinping has raised hopes, but Beijing’s embarrassment and hesitation persists. Director of the Vatican press office: all are welcome to the Pope’s inaugural Mass, even those who do not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou will be present tomorrow at the inaugural Mass for the pontificate of Pope Francis together with other heads of state and international officials. Up to this morning it was unknown whether there would be a representative from the People's Republic of China. But in the afternoon the Chinese ambassador Ding Wei referred to AsiaNews that "no delegation or political personality of the Chinese government" would be present. The ambassador still sends "congratulations" to the new Pope Francis.

President Ma, a Catholic - but "non-practicing" - arrived this morning in Rome. With a discreet and friendly style, Ma Ying-jeou has been very active in favour of the freedom of the Catholic Church in Taiwan. Last year he launched an agreement between the island and the Holy See for the mutual recognition of academic degrees and for Catholic education in schools.

His presence does not seem to have aroused the ire and criticism of Beijing, at least for now. Ma Ying-jeou is the second Taiwanese president to visit the Vatican. In 2005 there was the visit of his predecessor Chen Shui-bian who attended the funeral of John Paul II. At the time, Chen Shui-bian's participation alongside the leaders of the world powers - he was sitting next to George W. Bush - was broadcast across the world on TV arousing envy in Beijing and a certain degree of humiliation which in turn served as an impetuous of sorts towards attempts to open diplomatic channels. In the days before the funeral of the great Polish pope, Chinese representatives had tried to stop Chen's arrival, but the Vatican intervened: anyone who wants to is free to attend the funeral of the Pope.

Since then, over the years, the relationship between Beijing and the Holy See has waivered: mutual visits, relations between the diplomatic representations of both nations, some of the Episcopal appointment agreed upon. China, however, has always sent low-level delegates of little importance and has always tried to force the Vatican to endorse the permanence of the Patriotic Association (a structure of control of the official Church, that wants a Church independent of the Pope); the acceptance of all the illicit bishops (appointed without papal mandate), to stop demanding the release of imprisoned bishops and priests. The Holy See's resistence to such steps that are diametrically opposed to the Catholic faith has hardened Beijing, which in return began to appoint and ordain bishops without papal mandate, to the point of sequestering Msgr. Ma Daqin, auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, because he dared to resign from  the Patriotic Association on the day of his episcopal ordination.

With the transition of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, which concluded with the latter's being formally installed as President days ago, Vatican diplomacy had hoped that something would change in China. In the months before, Xi had promised political reforms, an end to laojiaos (forced labor camps), respect for the Constitution and law. Many Chinese Catholics had hoped that their bishops and priests, still in prison, would be released. Even more hope had been raised by an open letter from 100 intellectuals from the Party which requested the Chinese parliament ratify the UN Conventions on civil liberties, already signed by China in the 90s and never enforced. Among them is the guarantee full religious freedom, including the freedom for a community of faith to appoint its leadership. But the parliamentary meeting, which ended yesterday, did not raise a single issue regarding any reform.

In Vatican circles the hope remains that China will send a high-level delegation tomorrow, perhaps a figure from the world of culture and politics, so as not to create a climate of mutual embarrassment between Beijing and Taipei. This possibility was almost whispered in recent days by Fr. Federico Lombardi, during a briefing with reporters. Speaking of the Mass for the beginning of the pontificate of tomorrow, he said: "The Holy See never issues any invitations, it merely informs both through the diplomatic corps and publicly that there is this event and that anyone wants to come is more than welcome, but there is no official invitation. " He added: "All those who come are welcome, even if they do not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See." The same ideas were repeated at the briefing today.

AsiaNews has contacted the Embassy of the People's Republic of China to Rome for any news and waited for the response of the ambassador Ding Wei. In the afternoon, the diplomat announced that the "no delegation or personality of the Chinese government" will attend the inaugural mass. Ding Wei did, however, wanted to convey "congratulations to Pope Francis" for the beginning of his pontificate.


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