TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan supports the Vatican's efforts at engagement with China and hopes it improves that country's "worsening" religious freedom and human rights, the island's foreign ministry said after Pope Francis messaged Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The Vatican is one of only 13 countries to maintain formal diplomatic ties with Chinese-claimed Taiwan, and Taipei has watched nervously as Francis seeks to improve ties with Beijing.
The Vatican is Taiwan's sole European diplomatic ally. China says Taiwan is one of its provinces, with no right to state-to-state ties, which the government in Taipei strongly disputes.
Francis, in a message to Xi as he flew over China on his way to Mongolia, said on Friday he had good wishes for all the people of China and assured the president of his prayers for the "wellbeing of the nation".
China's foreign ministry said the pope's blessing reflected friendship and goodwill, noting China and the Vatican had maintained communication in recent years.
Taiwan's foreign ministry said in a statement late Friday the island fully respects religious freedom and supports the Vatican's continuous efforts and attempts at dialogue with China to resolve Catholic issues there.
"We hope that Vatican-China exchanges will help improve China's worsening religious freedom and human rights issues," it added.
The ministry said it will "closely observe" developments, work with the Vatican and Catholic Church to jointly defend universal values such as religious freedom, and continue to deepen the long-term friendship between Taiwan and the Vatican.
Under a 2018 accord, China and the Vatican recognise the pope as supreme leader of the Catholic Church.
China's constitution guarantees religious freedom, but in recent years the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.
Taiwan puts no restrictions on freedom of faith and has a thriving religious community that includes Christians, Buddhists and Muslims.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by William Mallard)