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Originally published Friday, March 15, 2013 at 1:49 AM

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Taiwan president to attend pope's installation

Taiwan's president will attend the installation mass of Pope Francis in Vatican City, an official said Friday, a rare European foray for the head of the diplomatically isolated island.

The Associated Press

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TAIPEI, Taiwan —

Taiwan's president will attend the installation mass of Pope Francis in Vatican City, an official said Friday, a rare European foray for the head of the diplomatically isolated island.

Vice Foreign Minister Shih Yea-ping said that President Ma Ying-jeou and first lady Christine Chou will be lead the Taiwanese delegation to the event. She said that Ma had received an official invitation from the Vatican, and that the foreign ministry expected that Italy would grant him transit rights through its territory.

Taiwan has full diplomatic relations with only 23 countries, most of them in Latin America, Africa, and the South Pacific. Its only diplomatic ally in Europe is the Vatican, though even that tie remains tenuous.

The Vatican has long expressed a willingness to transfer its recognition from Taipei to Beijing, though it has made that conditional on China allowing its Catholics to worship freely, without Communist Party restrictions.

On Thursday, China congratulated the new pope on his election, but said that establishing formal relations would depend on the Vatican cutting ties with Taipei and ceasing activities Beijing considers interference in its internal affairs.

Beijing normally tries to limit Taiwan's diplomatic exposure, part of its insistence that the island is part of its territory, with no sovereign rights of its own. The two sides split amid civil war in 1949.

Shih said that Taiwan had no contact with China on the issue of Ma's visit.

She said the Vatican's invitation reflected the fact that "we and the Vatican share common values like religious freedom and social justice."

Political scientist Alexander Huang of Taipei's Tamkang University said that despite Shih's insistence there had been no formal contact with China on the visit, it was possible that semi-official channels had been used to sound the Chinese side out.

He added that it was still too early to tell if newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping had had any involvement in the matter, or whether it signaled a new, more liberal Chinese line on increased diplomatic space for Taiwan.

"It is premature to try to judge Xi's attitude from a single episode," Huang said.

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