VATICAN CITY - President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan met with Pope Francis in St Peter's Basilica on Tuesday in a first taste for the new pontiff of a long-running dispute that pits the island against its giant neighbor China.
China has called on the Vatican to cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Sunday saying the Vatican should "recognize the Chinese government as the sole legal representative of all China."
The Holy See is one of only 23 states in the world that recognize Taipei instead of Beijing.
Hua also said China hoped Francis would "take concrete steps to create conditions for the improvement of China-Vatican relations."
The last time a Taiwanese leader visited the Vatican was in 2005, when then president Chen Shui-bian attended the funeral of John Paul II.
An incensed Beijing at the time refused to send a representative and filed a protest to Italy for issuing Chen a visa.
This time around, Li Xiaoyong, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Rome, told AFP: "There will be no delegation from China. China has expressed its congratulations.
"We hope that with the guidance of the new pontiff, the Vatican side can take a step towards us for a dialogue with mutual respect," he said.
Bernardo Cervellera, director of AsiaNews in Rome, a Catholic news agency specializing in Asian affairs, said: "The Vatican cannot block Taiwan from coming. It is a public ceremony."
He said the Chinese reaction was "like a broken record -- it masks the fact that they do not really know what to do."
"They are stuck in their own succession," he said, referring to the nomination last week of new President Xi Jinping.
China's communist regime broke ties with the Vatican in 1951 and six years later set up the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which does not recognize the pope as its head, while the Vatican continued to direct its own unofficial flock in China.
Anthony E. Clark, an expert on the faith in the country, who teaches Chinese history at Whitworth University in the United States, said: "China's official stance toward the Vatican is that the pope should have no governing role in China's Catholic community."
Relations worsened under Benedict XVI, with the Vatican excommunicating at least three bishops ordained by the official church in China.
The dispute is reminiscent of historical rows between the Vatican and the lay governments of Europe. The Vatican alone reserves the right to name bishops, while China sees this as interference in its internal affairs.
Close to Asians
Cervellera said the Argentine pope would be well equipped to deal with Asian affairs because of his experience of working under Argentina's authoritarian regime and his advocacy on poverty issues during an economic crisis there.
"Asians feel him very close," he said.
Cervellera said the Vatican had signalled it was willing to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan and that the ball was in China's court.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, the archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, agreed.
"All the popes have been very understanding with Beijing. Now it is up to China's new leadership," he was quoted by Italian media as saying earlier.
The dispute has left China's Catholics -- a minority among the estimated 67 million Christians of all denominations -- feeling vulnerable.
There are believed to be up to 12 million Catholics in China.
Bishop John Fang Xingyao, chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, was quoted by Hong Kong's South China Morning Post as saying he hoped the new pope would "turn over a new leaf" in relations.
"Given that God has chosen the new pope as a leader, I'm sure he would grant him the ability to build better relations," Fang said.
In negotiating the difficult diplomatic waters, Francis could take inspiration from Matteo Ricci, a fellow Jesuit and a fluent Mandarin speaker who became a famous missionary in China at the end of the 16th century.
Ricci's book "The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven" argued that Confucianism -- the great Chinese philosophy -- and Christianity were not opposed but in fact quite similar.
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