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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 April, 2005, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Taiwan head to be at Pope funeral
Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian
Mr Chen has already expressed his condolences at the Pope's passing
Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian will attend Pope John Paul II's funeral on Friday, Taiwan's foreign ministry says.

His presence at the service is likely to anger China, which sees Taiwan as part of its territory, and which broke off ties with the Vatican in 1951.

A Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Michel Lu, said the Italian government had agreed to issue visas for Mr Chen.

Mr Chen's planned visit comes amid speculation the Vatican may be prepared to recognise China instead of Taiwan.

The Vatican has no airport, so the five-strong Taiwanese delegation will have to travel to Italy in order to get to the funeral - a move also likely to incur Beijing's wrath.

If Mr Chen goes ahead with his trip, he will become the first Taiwanese president to visit the Vatican - one of only 25 nations that officially recognises Taipei diplomatically, and the only one in Europe

He is scheduled to leave Taipei on Thursday for Rome, and stay in the Vatican until after Friday's funeral, Mr Lu told the BBC News website.

Policy switch mooted

Since the Pope's death at the weekend, the issue of the Vatican's recognition of Taiwan - and its continuing rift with China - has again come under the spotlight.

A commemorative mass for Pope John Paul II at the Southern Cathedral, Beijing's largest Catholic church in China, 4 April 2005.
Catholics in China are forced to look to Beijing, not the Vatican

On Tuesday, a senior Hong Kong bishop said the Holy See might be ready to cut ties with Taipei in order to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.

Bishop Joseph Zen said the Vatican could change allegiances if China's communist authorities were "willing to grant real freedom to the church in mainland China".

China's estimated 13m Catholics are currently forced to attend state-controlled churches or worship in secret.

But Beijing reiterated on Tuesday that it was only willing to re-establish diplomatic links with the Vatican if it cut ties with Taiwan and did not use religion to interfere in China's internal affairs.

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