Taiwan First couple set to attend pope's inaugural mass

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Taipei (The China Post/ANN) - Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and first lady Chow Mei-ching will attend Pope Francis' inaugural Mass at the Vatican on March 19, Vice Foreign Minister Vanessa Shih announced yesterday.

The visit to the Holy See will be the president's first trip to the country's only diplomatic ally in Europe since he took office in 2008.

Making the announcement at a press conference in the Presidential Office yesterday, Shih said Ma and Chow would lead the five-member delegation that also includes National Security Council chief Jason Yuan and Fu Jen Catholic University President Vincent Chiang and herself.

The delegation will board a charter flight to depart Taiwan tomorrow at 11:20 p.m., heading for Rome.

Ma and the delegation will be joining the inaugural Mass at the Vatican at 9:30 a.m. March 19 local time before taking another charter flight to return to Taiwan later on the same day.

During his stay in the Vatican, Ma is scheduled to inspect the nation's embassy in the Holy See and its representative office in Rome, Shih noted.

The president may also take the rare opportunity to meet with overseas Taiwanese in Italy and Taiwanese clergymen in the area.

Shih refused to comment when asked by reporters if Ma's visit would jeopardize cross-strait ties.

She stressed, however, that the Holy See's invitation to the president is evidence of the strong ties and long-term relationship between the Republic of China and the Vatican.

Earlier in the same day, Foreign Minister David Lin said the R.O.C.-Vatican relationship is very solid as the two sides share the same values of upholding peace, justice and humanitarianism.

President Ma sent a congratulatory message to Pope Francis after learning of his election to the papacy.

Meanwhile, in a statement released yesterday, Msgr. Paul Russell, the Holy See's top envoy to Taiwan, welcomed Ma's upcoming visit to the Vatican.

"The Holy See is grateful for His Excellency President Ma Ying-jeou's message of congratulations on the occasion of the election of His Holiness Pope Francis," the statement said.

With regard to the R.O.C.'s participation at the ceremony for the inauguration of His Holiness, "The Holy See will be very happy to welcome His Excellency President Ma Ying-jeou, and will receive him with every honor," it noted.

The Vatican is the R.O.C.'s only diplomatic ally in Europe. The two countries have maintained diplomatic ties since 1942.

Last time a Taiwanese president visited the Vatican was in 2005, when then-President Chen Shui-bian attended the funeral of the late Pope John Paul II.

At the previous inaugural Mass in 2005, Taiwan sent then-Interior Minister Su Jia-chyuan, Deputy Foreign Minister Ouyang Jiahsiung and Ambassador to the Holy See Tou Chou-seng.

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