Pope Signals Closeness to China and Distance from Taiwan and Hong Kong

A worshipers waves the flag of China as Pope Francis leaves following the weekly general audience on June 12, 2019 at St. Peter's square in the Vatican. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty

ROME — Pope Francis sent subtle but clear signals of closeness to Beijing while distancing himself from Taiwan and Hong Kong during his flight to Japan from Thailand Saturday.

In a series of telegrams to officials of the three territories, the pope disclosed the current diplomatic position of the Vatican regarding key Asian conflicts.

Especially revealing was the wording of the pontiff’s telegrams to China and Taiwan and the different manner in which he described each nation.

“I send cordial greetings to your Excellency as I fly over China on my way to Japan. I assure you of my prayers for the nation and its people, invoking upon all of you abundant blessings of peace and joy,” the pope wrote to Xi Jinping, president of the People’s Republic of China and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

In his telegram to Taiwan, however — the only one of the three with whom the Vatican enjoys diplomatic relations — Francis made no reference to the “nation” but only mentioned its “people.”

“As I enter the airspace of Taiwan on my way to Japan, I send cordial greetings to your Excellency and your fellow citizens. Assuring you of my prayers for all the people of Taiwan, I invoke abundant divine blessings of peace,” the pope told Tsai-Ing-Wen, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

For some time, Taiwan has manifested concern over the Vatican’s renewed interest in establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing since China has made it clear that it will only enter into relations with those nations that renounce all ties to Taiwan.

Shortly after the Vatican inked a provisional accord with Beijing over the naming of Bishops in China, Taiwan’s vice president, Chen Chien-jen, issued an invitation to Pope Francis to visit his country, the second such offer out of Taipei.

Without answering the invitation, the pope smiled and “indicated that he would pray for Taiwan” and asked Chen to convey his greetings to President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan.

Perhaps the most disconcerting of the pontiff’s telegrams on Saturday was the one he sent to Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong. It has been noted that the pope has never made reference to the ongoing protests taking place in Hong Kong or the escalating violence employed by police to quash the demonstrations, a silence many have found troubling.

In his telegram to Carrie Lam, Francis again made no reference to the problematic situation, but he underscored Hong Kong’s status as a Chinese “territory,” despite its semi-independent status.

“As I fly over your territory, I extend my best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens. Invoking divine blessings, I pray that almighty God may grant you all well-being and peace,” Francis wrote.

Numerous reports out of China suggest that the Vatican’s rapprochement with Beijing has done nothing to benefit Christians on the ground, but has rather emboldened authorities to crack down on religious practice and especially on Christians who refuse to align themselves officially with the party.

As China expert Father Bernardo Cervellera reported last September, “It now appears that there is ‘zero tolerance’ for unofficial communities.”

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