Vatican's unofficial envoy in SAR revealed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 August, 1999, 12:00am

The Pope has maintained an unofficial envoy in Hong Kong since the handover despite the Vatican's lack of relations with Beijing, a move that has surprised diplomats and officials.

Monsignor Frederick Filoni, technically described as stationed at the Vatican Embassy in Manila, is an unofficial diplomat believed to have been a key figure in failed behind-the-scenes moves to have Pope John Paul invited to Hong Kong.

The position of the cleric, who lives in Hong Kong, is so sensitive under Chinese rule that only an inner circle of Catholics knew of his presence here.

Senior diplomats said they were not aware the Vatican had stationed such a senior representative in Hong Kong and even local officials in charge of protocol and dealing with the diplomatic corps had not heard of him.

The Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the major reason Beijing cited in rejecting the Vatican's overtures for a papal visit to the SAR.

The monsignor, whose role is said to be as a monitor of Hong Kong and China affairs, was a key figure in the diplomacy surrounding the scuppered papal visit, according to sources.

Monsignor Filoni's position is viewed as sensitive because no sign has come from Beijing since the handover about whether it would continue to tolerate an unofficial papal envoy on Chinese soil, sources said.

The role stems from the posting to Hong Kong in 1989 of Monsignor Jean Paul Gobel as 'the first secretary in China affairs of the papal nunciature in Manila'.

But unlike other states recognising Taiwan that have changed the status of their representatives from diplomatic to commercial organisations or closed them down, the Vatican has chosen to leave the monsignor in place.

Beijing reportedly raised no objection to Monsignor Gobel's appointment, to secure a channel to the Vatican.

The post is believed to be attached to the Vatican Embassy in Manila because Cardinal Jaime Sin, an ethnic Chinese, has enjoyed some acceptance with Beijing.