Taipei Taiwan's leader will make an unprecedented visit to the Vatican to attend Pope John Paul II's funeral, the government said Wednesday in a move likely to upset China.
President Chen Shui-bian will attend the pope's funeral on Friday, the Foreign Ministry said. It will be the first trip to Europe by a Taiwanese president because foreign visits usually prompt objections from China.
The Vatican is Taiwan's only diplomatic ally in Europe. Under pressure from Beijing, however, Italy had refused to issue visas to Taiwan's presidents in the past.
Michel Lu, Taiwan's Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Mr. Chen will depart for Rome on Thursday. Italy issued Chen a visa and will accord him with protocols reserved for heads of state, Mr. Lu said.
“He will take a China Airlines charter flight to Rome ... and will return to Taipei” after the funeral, he said.
Beijing is expected to lodge a strong protest with Italy against Mr. Chen's visit. China considers Taiwan part of its own territory and has barred the island's leaders from taking part in international events.
By attending the funeral, Mr. Chen will have the rare chance of meeting heads of state and help raise the international profile of the island.
A civil war led to Taiwan separating from China in 1949. Most of Taiwan's 25 other allies are small or impoverished countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and overseas trips for Taiwanese leaders are rare.
Former Taiwanese vice-president Lien Chan made a rare visit to the Vatican in 1997 after obtaining a visa from Italy by promising not to attend any public events and to refrain from political activities.
Taiwan has been wary that the new pope may switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Some officials, however, say the Vatican is unlikely to recognize Beijing as long as China does not recognize the pope's authority over its bishops and churches.
Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen told reporters Monday that the Vatican wants to cut formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize China, where millions of Roman Catholics risk arrest by worshipping in secret churches.