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China says it is willing to improve Vatican ties; Taiwan monitoring developments

by Reuters Journalist

China is willing to work with the Vatican to improve ties, a Chinese foreign ministry official said on Wednesday following remarks from the Holy See's top diplomat that it wanted to open an office in Beijing.

Relations between the Vatican and China's Communist Party leadership have historically been fraught and it does not have diplomatic relations with Beijing, only Taiwan. Indeed, it is one of only a dozen countries to maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, which has watched nervously as Pope Francis seeks to improve ties with China.

The Vatican would like to establish a permanent office in China, its top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said on Tuesday, in what would be a significant upgrade of relations.

"We are willing to work together with the Vatican to promote the continuous improvement of China-Vatican relations," foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular briefing.

He added that the two sides have maintained "deep communication on bilateral relations and international hot issues."

Vatican officials have mentioned the need for an office before but Parolin's remarks suggest a new impetus, with the envoy saying new ways could be found to make it happen.

The Vatican maintains a discreet unofficial office in Hong Kong but its two representatives perform no representative functions or duties and do not meet with officials.

Taiwan is paying close attention to interactions between the Vatican and China, the island's foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

It added that China had "repeatedly violated" a 2018 agreement with the Vatican that allows for the appointment of bishops. The issue of appointments is a longstanding source of tension between the Vatican and the Communist Party leadership, which is officially atheist.

The precise contents of the interim deal, which is due to be extended later this year, remain secret.

Responding to Parolin's comments, Taiwan's foreign ministry said it continued to promote cooperation with the Vatican and the Catholic Church in fields such as humanitarian assistance and jointly defending the core values of religious freedom.

"We understand that the Holy See hopes to promote the freedom of belief and rights of Chinese Catholics, and has publicly expressed its desire to send representatives to China many times," it said in a statement.

In the 100 years since the first Chinese synod was held in 1924, China has "clamped down on religious freedom", the ministry added.

The ministry called on all nations to work together to urge China to stop its "violations of religious freedom and basic human rights".

Taiwan's deputy environment minister Shih Wen-chen led a delegation to a Vatican seminar on climate change this month, which met with Pope Francis, demonstrating the deep friendship between Taiwan and the Vatican, it added.

It also said the Vatican sent an envoy, its ambassador to the Philippines, Charles John Brown, to Monday's inauguration of Taiwan President Lai Ching-te.

"Hopefully we will be getting your continued support," outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen told Brown during a meeting in the presidential office shortly before the event.

"The Holy Father sends his warm greetings to you," Brown replied, in comments carried on live television.

China says Taiwan is one of its provinces with no right to state-to-state ties, a position the government in Taipei rejects.

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