ROME – Pope Benedict's top diplomat said on Tuesday the Holy See was always ready to end relations with Taiwan and return its embassy to Beijing but that China must respect religious freedom and treat the Vatican fairly.
“We have said many times that it (Taiwan) is not an obstacle,” said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, adding the Vatican was ready to start dialogue at any time.
“I have said many times that if we had contacts with Beijing, our charge d'affaires who is in Taiwan would go to Beijing, not tomorrow morning, but tonight,” he told reporters on the sidelines of a university event.
China has had no diplomatic ties with the Vatican since 1951, two years after the Communist takeover.
Beijing has insisted that diplomatic ties cannot be resumed unless Rome first severs links with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
But Sodano said the Vatican wants freedom for Catholics in China and to be allowed to re-open its embassy in Beijing with no conditions attached.
“The Holy See cannot be treated worse than other states. When other states ended their relations with Taiwan they moved immediately to Beijing. Why can't the Holy See, if it ends its contacts with Taiwan, go immediately to Beijing?” Sodano said.
This was an apparent reference to China's accusations that the Vatican wants to interfere in its internal affairs.
China refuses to allow the Vatican to appoint bishops and it refuses to allow Catholics to recognise the authority of the Pope.
Instead, Chinese Catholics must belong to a state-backed church known as the Catholic Patriotic Association.
The Vatican estimates it has about 8 million followers in China who worship in the “underground Church”, compared with some 5 million who follow the state-backed association.
Ready for Talks
“The Holy See has always said we are ready for dialogue, ready for contacts, ready to explain its traditions but we have to always insist that the Church is one, in the entire world, in all cultures,” he said.
“Governments do not have the right to tell men and women how they have to live their faith. This is the right of religious freedom for all people …” he said.
Senegal switched relations from Taiwan to China earlier on Tuesday, meaning the Vatican is one of just 25 states, most Third World countries in Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific, that maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
China and Taiwan, officially called the Republic of China, have been political rivals since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Each accuses the other of using “dollar diplomacy”, or soft loans and other economic incentives, to win allies.
China's communist government refused to allow four bishops from China to attend a synod at the Vatican that ended last Sunday.
For three weeks four empty seats were kept in the hall where the prelates met to remind the more than 250 other bishops of their absence.
In his homily closing the synod, Pope Benedict said he was sure that the suffering of the Chinese Church “will not remain fruitless”.