ROME – Taiwan’s Ambassador to the Holy See blasted mainland China over what he said is a lack of respect for basic freedoms and human rights, and aligned his embassy with key papal priorities, such as care for migrants and the environment.

At a reception marking the 108th National Day of the Republic of China, celebrated Oct. 10, Ambassador Matthew S.M. Lee praised the Republic of China’s standing as the oldest democracy in Asia, saying he is proud to represent “a country where freedom of religion and respect of fundamental human rights are a well-consolidated reality.”

The Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1942 when a diplomatic minister was assigned, arriving in Rome in 1943. After the Chinese civil war, Communists under Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, while President Chiang Kai-shek fled with his government to the island of Taiwan in 1949.

Under the “One China” policy, governments had diplomatic relations with either Beijing or Taipei, however, no country has officially recognized Taiwan as an independent country.

By the 1970s, most Western countries moved their embassies to Beijing. Today, fewer than 20 countries maintain ties with Taipei, mostly in the Americas and Oceania. The Vatican is the only state in Europe to do so.

Lee said Taiwan is “committed to fighting human trafficking, assisting those in need, including migrants and refugees, and defending the environment by developing and implementing affordable green technologies.”

He highlighted the embassy’s key partnership with the Vatican, pointing to specific collaboration in promoting Pope Francis’s eco-agenda and assisting the poor, including the recent distribution of some 1,000 solar radio devices in rural Uganda, allowing the local population broader communication while also using green energy sources.

Lee also pointed to the “Light of the World” contemporary art exhibit, inaugurated July 3, as an example of “reaching out and fostering friendship” in a bid to carry forward Francis’s “culture of encounter.”

Located inside the embassy, just a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Basilica on the Via della Conciliazione, the exhibit was done with the encouragement of the Pontifical Council for Culture and represented a step toward generating greater visibility for the embassy, which has typically kept a very low profile.

“This exhibition,” Lee said, “intends to encourage cultural ties and deepen mutual understanding between the Holy See and Taiwan.”

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Attending Thursday’s reception were several seminarians, Vatican reporters, ambassadors from other embassies, as well as several Vatican officials, including Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Bishops, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States.

In a prayer before dinner, Re asked that God “protect the people of Taiwan, a hard-working people, a people with great cultural and religious traditions.”

“On this day,” commemorating Taiwan’s national day, “we ask God to protect Taiwan, so that it may live in justice, in peace and in concord, and so that Taiwan may continue in their defense of human rights and also of religious freedom,” he said.

In his remarks, Lee cited a March 2019 interview given to Vatican News by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, who was sent to Taiwan for the fourth National Eucharistic Congress, held March 1.

Quoting Filoni, Lee said that while Taiwan does not enjoy formal diplomatic ties with many countries, “its economic, social and cultural ties with other countries carry great significance.” Therefore, he said, Taiwan’s status cannot be described “as one of ‘isolation.’”

Taiwan “finds its own path through difficulties,” he said, and accused mainland China of suppressing their international footprint through financial interference, political pressure and fake news.

“However, we will not stand to be threatened, nor will we be subjected to ceaseless demands. China’s actions will not impact the Taiwanese people’s convictions or solidarity,” Lee said, adding that “Taiwanese people will not yield, nor will China’s attempts to influence Taiwan’s politics or elections succeed.”

He then pointed to the current political unrest and rioting in Hong Kong sparked by an extradition bill put forward this summer by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam allowing Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China to stand trial.

A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under the so-called “one country, two systems” plan, which promised to uphold certain freedoms in Hong Kong that were not enjoyed on the mainland. However, in recent years Hong Kong residents have said these rights have eroded.

Lee said the current months-long crisis in Hong Kong stands as proof that “the so-called ‘one country, two systems’ is a complete failure.”

“We believe that democracy and freedom are fundamental principles for governing not only in Taiwan, but also in Hong Kong and mainland China,” he said.

Lee also condemned U.N. leaders for disinviting Taiwan to take part in meetings as an observer “because of pressures from Communist China.” Taipei’s official member seat at the U.N. was taken over by the People’s Republic of China in 1971.

“A truly inclusive U.N. would not leave anyone behind,” Lee said, and called the move “unjust and discriminatory.”

He stressed the importance of Taiwan’s relationship with the Vatican insisting that the embassy to the Holy See will continue to make their relationship with the Vatican a priority, specifically in carrying out works “to ensure that the world we live in remains peaceful and sustainably guided by our shared aspiration for peace, freedom of religion, human dignity and respect for the environment.”

“My government is open to dialogue with mainland China,” Lee said, but stressed that it must be “without any political precondition and on an equal footing.”

“Peace is the result of justice which ensures the respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, a concept that Communist China has yet to understand,” he said, and wished the Vatican and Taiwan “a brighter future” of friendship and collaboration.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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