Taiwan has invited Pope Francis to visit the island in a move aimed at deepening ties with the Vatican after the Holy See signed a historic deal with Beijing.
Vice president Chen Chien-jen made the invitation during an audience with the pope ahead of the canonisation of Pope John Paul VI on Sunday, Taiwan’s presidential office said in a statement.
Pope Francis asked Chen to send his greetings to President Tsai Ing-wen and “indicated that he would pray for Taiwan”, the statement added.
In footage aired on local TV, Chen told reporters that the pope “smiled” when he was invited to visit Taiwan. The presidential office said they had no further detail on his response to the invitation.
The landmark agreement last month on the appointment of bishops paved the way for a rapprochement between the Vatican and China.
That raised questions over the future of official ties between Taiwan and the Holy See — the island’s only official ally in Europe — as China makes a concerted effort to poach its dwindling number of diplomatic allies.
China sees self-ruling democratic Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified and demands its allies forfeit recognition of the island.
Taiwanese officials have said that Chen’s visit would help deepen Taiwan-Vatican relations and that they believe the Vatican will not abandon Taiwan.
“I want to thank the pope for his greetings and blessings,” Tsai said in a message on her Facebook page.
“We will use active and concrete actions to continue to support the pope and the Vatican to spread common values of freedom, justice, peace and caring to every corner in the world,” she added.
Chen, a devote Catholic, also visited the Vatican in 2016 for the canonisation of Mother Teresa.
Taiwan, which has around 300,000 Catholics, has lost five allies to Beijing in the past two years.
Relations between Taiwan and China have deteriorated since President Tsai came to power in 2016, as she does not recognise the island is part of “one China”.
The Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with Beijing since 1951.
Pope Francis has sought to improve relations since he took office in 2013, but previous attempts foundered over Beijing’s insistence that the Vatican give up recognition of Taiwan and promise not to interfere in domestic religious issues.
There are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, divided between a government-run association whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party, and an unofficial church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.