ROME – After a massive earthquake shook Taiwan this week, leaving at least 10 people dead, the island’s Ambassador to the Holy See has thanked the world for its solidarity, and Pope Francis specifically for his spiritual closeness.

“Right after the earthquake struck, the Taiwan government immediately activated the Central Emergency Operations Center, and launched various emergency preparedness, rescue and relief efforts in conjunction with local governments,” Ambassador Matthew Lee, Taiwan’s envoy to the Holy See, told Crux.

As the country mourns the victims and grapples with the large-scale damage of the quake, “the path of recovering from the disaster has already begun,” Lee said.

“Pope Francis’ telegram of condolences to Taiwan, along with condolences from over 100 heads of state and senior government officials all over the world, is such a tremendous encouragement not only to the Catholic community of Taiwan, but to the Taiwanese society as a whole,” he said.

Lee said that Pope Francis’s “heartfelt solidarity and spiritual closeness” at such a difficult time for Taiwan “is especially touching to the Taiwanese people.”

“On behalf of the people and Government of Taiwan, I would like to sincerely express our gratitude to Pope Francis and everyone who has shared their sentiments and condolences to Taiwan,” he said.

Lee’s remarks came after a 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck the city of Hualien Wednesday, killing 10 people and leaving more than 1,000 people injured and countless others displaced. As of Friday, rescuer personnel were still searching for 18 missing people.

The tremor marked Taiwan’s strongest quake in 25 years, following a 1997 earthquake that hit the middle of the island, killing 2,400 people and injuring 10,000 others.

In an April 6 telegram signed by Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin and addressed to Bishop John Baptist Lee Keh-Mean of Hsinchu, president of the Chinese Regional Bishops’ Conference of Taiwan, Pope Francis said he was “deeply saddened to learn of the loss of life and damage caused by the earthquake in Taiwan.”

The pope assured all those affected by the tragedy “of his heartfelt solidarity and spiritual closeness.”

Despite its ongoing courtship of China, the Holy See remains one of Taiwan’s few diplomatic allies and is its only diplomatic partner in Europe, with the two enjoying strong collaboration on the humanitarian front and in various charitable initiatives.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Italy, the Taiwanese Embassy to the Holy See was among the most proactive in distributing sanitary aid packages to various religious communities and institutes throughout Rome and the rest of the country.

The embassy regularly organizes artistic and cultural events throughout the year, and they host a large celebration annually to mark Taiwan’s National Day on October 10.

The pope’s telegram to Taiwan marks one of the few instances in which the Vatican has directly addressed Taiwan in public, as it usually refrains from doing so in order not to upset Chinese authorities at a time when the Holy See is seeking to negotiate the presence of a permanent papal representative in Beijing.

Pope Francis has made engagement with China a hallmark of his 11-year papacy, including with a 2018 provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, which is still in place and is set to be renewed for a third time this year, as well as various well-placed shout-outs.

This week’s earthquake has also shed fresh light on the tensions between China and Taiwan, with the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry on Thursday condemning China as “shameless” after its deputy ambassador to the United Nations thanked the world for its concern for Taiwan after the earthquake.

China claims Taiwan, a democratically governed autonomous territory formally called the Republic of China, as its own, often speaking on behalf of the island on the international stage.

After Wednesday’s earthquake, China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Geng Shuang said at a meeting on children’s rights that another speaker had mentioned the quake in “China’s Taiwan.”

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs afterward said that it “solemnly condemns China’s shameless use of the Taiwan earthquake to conduct cognitive operations internationally,” using a Taiwanese term referring to what it views as Chinese psychological warfare.

Pope Francis in his telegram Thursday offered his prayers “for the dead, the injured and all those displaced, as well as for the emergency personnel engaged in recovery efforts” in Taiwan, and he invoked “upon all the divine blessings of consolation and strength.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen