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Taiwan’s Catholic president leaves the way open for better Church relations

HONG KONG (SE): Ma Ying-jeou won a second term at the fifth direct election for president of Taiwan on January 14.

Defying predictions of a close result, he came in with a margin of 800,000 votes, taking 51.6 per cent of the estimated 6.89 million cast.

Prior to 1996, the president of Taiwan was appointed by the parliament.

Although returned with a reduced majority, Ma gave the electorate another surprise during his election campaign, announcing that he is a Catholic and has been since childhood.

UCA News reported that he attended midnight Mass at Christmas in Kaohsiung and, although some people accused him of currying votes among the island’s growing Catholic community, the retired archbishop of the city, Paul Cardinal Shan Kuo-hsi, said that Ma is the first Catholic to be president and that his acts have never let the Church down in the past.

A former missionary to Taiwan, Father Kevin O’Neill, told the Sunday Examiner, “We always thought that he was a Christian, but never knew that he was a Catholic.”

Ma belongs to the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, which garnered 64 of the 113 seats in the legislature, 17 fewer than in the last election.

Dubbed Mr. Clean by the media, Ma said at his victory speech, “We have won. It is the victory for clean (government), prosperity and peace.”

UCA News reported that Church leaders see his reelection as opening the way for stronger relations between the Churches in Taiwan and on the mainland.

The president of the Chinese Regional Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop John Hung Shan-chuan, said that with Ma’s policy of stability and peaceful relations with Beijing, he sees the possibility of improved relations and communication between the Holy See and the mainland.

The Associated Press reported on January 15 that Beijing favoured Ma over his main opposition candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, of the Progressive Party.

The president of China, Hu Jintao, is seen as wanting to see improvements in the political rift between the two economies before he leaves office this year.

China’s official news agency, Xinhua, was positive about Ma’s reelection. “The results of the elections have indicated that the peaceful development of the cross strait relations is a correct path and has been widely recognised by the Taiwan people,” the agency said.

However, Ma’s first priority is to continue his former policy of an improved economy. He has already signed 16 pacts with Beijing, including an open travel agreement, which has seen direct flights between the island and the mainland, as well as a free trade agreement.

Ma noted, “With mainland relations, we will work on the economy first and politics later, work on the easier tasks first and the more difficult ones later.”

Ma’s acceptance of the 1992 Consensus, a tacit agreement on a one-China policy, has won him a greater acceptance in Beijing. In the election, Tsai, is main opposition, pitted herself in disagreement with proceeding with this approach, saying that it is against what is officially called the Republic of China’s recent historical existence.

Deutche Presse Agentur quoted Ma’s foreign policy adviser, Francis Kan, as saying that the way to move forward is to focus on how to do consensus, not on whether to do it or not. “Whether you like it or not, (it) has brought Taiwan people real benefits and also brought to the Taiwan Strait more stability,” the German news agency reported him as saying.

UCA News reported prior to the election on December 21 last year that the Vatican has shown an increased interest in Taiwan in recent times. It cited high profile visits from the prefect for Catholic Education in the Vatican, Zenon ,Cardinal Grocholewski, as well as the secretary to the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai, in addition to the former bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, and Bishop José Lai Hung-seng, of Macau.

UCA News adds that in addition to these high profile visits, the Pontifical University in Rome co-hosted a seminar on Taiwanese affairs with the Chinese diplomatic representation to Italy.

Cardinal Grocholewski signed an historic agreement of cooperation with the government in Taipei on higher education and the Jesuit-run Fu Jen University in Taiwan conferred an honorary degree on Hong Kong-born Archbishop Hon.

Under Cardinal Grocholewski’s agreement, the only pontifical university serving Chinese communities in a serious and systematic way will have its degrees recognised by the Taiwan government.

UCA News draws a metaphor with the parable of the talents, saying that the Vatican has conferred five on the Taiwan Church and anticipates something in return.

It notes that the Vatican has also conferred on the mainland Church the talent of papal control over the appointment of bishops, which it has hidden in the ground.

“It remains to be seen how the master in this metaphor will respond,” the Asia-based Church news agency notes.

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