Pope Francis has a reputation for visiting some of the world’s most remote countries, even in places where Catholics are few in number. So, it may not be too surprising that this week he will be in Mongolia, a nation with just 1,450 Catholics.
Francis will arrive in the Mongolian capital on September 1 and stay until September 4, with plans to meet the country’s Catholic faithful, celebrate mass and engage in inter-religious dialogue.
Talking about the visit at St Peter’s Square on the Sunday before his departure, the 86-year-old pope told the crowd the church there was “small in numbers, but lively in faith and great in charity”.
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But there may be more to the papal visit than religion.
The pope’s schedule also includes a full day of meetings with Mongolia’s political leaders, with conversations likely to touch on Mongolia’s relations with its two giant neighbours, Russia and China. That is important now more than ever as Francis seeks dialogue between the West and Russia to find a way out of the now-18-month-old war in Ukraine.
The pope is also looking for avenues to speak to China’s leadership over the governance of that country’s estimated 10 to 12 million Catholics. The Holy See and Beijing have not had official diplomatic relations for more than 70 years and relations between the two have been strained over the appointment of bishops and creation of dioceses despite an agreement on the issue in 2018.
The hope is that Mongolia, which has good relationships with both Moscow and Beijing, may be able to create an opening for dialogue between Beijing and the Catholic Church.
For Mongolia, the pontiff’s visit matters because it signals Ulaanbaatar’s rise as an intermediary between powers who do not always get along, explained Amar Adiya, the publisher of Mongolia Weekly newsletter.
“It also boosts Mongolia’s credentials as a religiously tolerant democracy in contrast to its neighbours,” he said.
The trip also briefly puts Mongolia on the world stage, said Adiya.
“The big picture is that Mongolia has come a long way from the 13th century when its rulers demanded a pope’s submission,” he said, referring to a letter sent by Guyuk Khan in 1246 to the Vatican with the insistence that Pope Innocent IV surrender to Mongol authority.
“This visit reflects Mongolia’s evolution into a partner across cultures,” said Adiya.
Jack Weatherford, a historian and author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, notes that the message bearer between Guyuk Khan and Pope Innocent IV was the Franciscan monk John of Plano Carpini.Other Franciscans followed in an effort to connect Mongolians and Europeans.
“It seems fitting that now, nearly eight centuries later, the first pope to visit Mongolia is also the first to bear the name of Francis,” Weatherford said.
Francis’s visit to Mongolia correlates with his past travel routine of seeking out nations where he can exercise both political and religious muscle.
In April, he was in Hungary where he met Ukrainian refugees and the Russian Orthodox Church leader. In January, Francis visited the conflict zones – the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan – where he travelled on a ‘pilgrimage of peace’. He has also toured countries including Kazakhstan, Iraq and southern Africa in recent years.
The papal visit to Mongolia comes as the world watches China and Russia increase cooperation and try to pull other countries into their orbit. Some say Ulaanbaatar may be an opportunity for the Vatican to sneak in through the back door, as it were.
“Mongolia emerges as a potential conduit through which the Catholic Church could foster connections with both China and Russia,” said Zolbayar Enkhbaatar, co-founder of Lemon Press, a financial media company in Mongolia. “Mongolia is a strategically important destination for the Catholic Church.”
Mongolia does have some experience in international diplomacy. In recent years, the country has developed the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue which has brought together countries including Japan and North Korea to discuss regional issues.
From a religious perspective, the pope will be speaking to a nation that, for the most part, follows Tibetan Buddhism mixed with a native culture of shamanism. According to the United States state department, about 40 percent of Mongolians are not religious, but among those who expressed a religious identity, 87 percent declared themselves Buddhist and just two percent Christian.Historically, the Mongols have been in contact with Christians since the seventh century, when Nestorian Christians arrived on the fringes of Mongolian lands. During the time of the Mongol Empire, in the 1200s, several Christian missionaries were dispatched from Europe to try and convert the Mongol khans.
Mongolia did not become a Christian nation, but it has long been willing to learn from other cultures and religions.
“I hope that the pope’s visit will be a celebration of religious tolerance and openness,” said Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, the chair of Mongolia’s Civic Unity Party, and a former minister of sport, culture and tourism.
She called the trip historic and expects that Francis will see Mongolia as a peace-loving nation.
“It doesn’t matter how many people are Catholic in our predominantly Buddhist country. It matters that the entire population of Mongolia embraces religious diversity and loves peace and freedom,” she said.