Pope declines invitation to visit Taiwan: MOFA

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Pope Francis declined an invitation to visit Taiwan during his ongoing Asia visit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said yesterday.

Zhang Ming-zhong, MOFA's director-general of European affairs, told The China Post yesterday that the ministry received an official response from the Holy See in December declining the invitation Taiwan extended to the pope.

The Holy See cited a tight schedule as reason for declining the invitation, Zhang said.

Foreign Minister David Lin said previously that Taiwan extended the invitation to the Holy See but did not receive a definitive answer late last year.

The Vatican is one of Taiwan's 22 diplomatic allies and the only one in Europe.

The ongoing visit to Asia, which includes stops in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, marks the second time Pope Francis has embarked on an Asian tour since assuming the papacy in March, 2013.

He arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday for a two-day trip, the first papal visit to the country since its civil war ended in 2009. Following the stop in Sri Lanka, the pope is scheduled to arrive in the Philippines today for a five-day-tour.

Pope Francis paid a visit to the region last August when he headed to South Korea.

This is not the first time an invitation to Taiwan has been declined by Pope Francis.

Vice Foreign Minister Vanessa Shih told local media last October that the R.O.C. extended an invitation to the pope ahead of his visit to South Korea last year, but the proposal was declined.

Shih previously said that the pope chose to visit South Korea and the Philippines because of the large Catholic populations in those countries.

The Philippines has a huge Catholic population - about 80 per cent of its 100 million people - while 10 per cent of South Korea's 50 million people follow the faith.

In contrast, only about 300,000 Taiwanese follow the faith out of a population of roughly 23,000,000.

Pope Francis' rejection of the invitations came against the backdrop of him repeatedly expressing a wish to bring about closer relations with China.

However, Taiwan has reaffirmed its close ties with its European ally through the frequent visits of senior Taiwanese officials to the Holy See.

Lin was selected by President Ma Ying-jeou to be his envoy at the beatification ceremony of Pope Paul VI at the Vatican last October.

Before Lin, Ma attended the pope's inaugural Mass at St. Peter's Square in March, 2013, and Vice President Wu Den-yih attended the canonizations of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII last April.