Pope Francis is famous for visiting some of the most remote countries in the world, even in places with fewer Catholics. So, it may come as no surprise that he is in Mongolia this week, a country with a population of just 1,450 Catholics.
Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the Mongolian capital on September 1 and remain there until September 4, with plans to meet the country’s Catholic faithful, celebrate Mass and engage in interfaith dialogue.
Speaking of a visit he made to St. Peter’s Square on the Sunday before his departure, the 86-year-old pope told the crowd that the church there was “small in number, but alive in faith and great in charity.”
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, and the talks are likely to touch on Mongolia’s relations with its two giant neighbors Russia and China. This is important now more than ever as Francis seeks dialogue between the West and Russia to find a way out of the 18-month-old war in Ukraine.
The pope is also looking for ways to talk to the Chinese leadership about ruling the country’s estimated 10 to 12 million Catholics. There have been no formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Beijing for more than 70 years, and relations between the two countries have been strained over the appointment of bishops and the establishment of dioceses despite agreement on the issue in 2018.
And in April, without the Vatican’s approval, Beijing appointed a new bishop of Shanghai, the country’s largest diocese.
The hope is that Mongolia, which enjoys good relations with both Moscow and Beijing, can create an opportunity for dialogue between Beijing and the Catholic Church.
Amar Adiya, publisher of the Mongolia Weekly newsletter, explained that for Mongolia, the pope’s visit is significant because it signals the rise of Ulaanbaatar as a mediator between forces that don’t always agree.
“It also reinforces Mongolia’s status as a democratic and religiously tolerant country, unlike its neighbours,” he said.
Adiya said the trip briefly puts Mongolia on the world stage.
“The big picture is that Mongolia has come a long way since the thirteenth century when its rulers demanded the submission of the Pope,” he said, referring to a letter Guyuk Khan sent in 1246 to the Vatican insisting that Pope Innocent IV surrender to the Vatican. Mongol power.
“This visit reflects Mongolia’s development into a cross-cultural partner,” Adia said.
Jack Weatherford, historian and author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, notes that the bearer of the letter between Goik Khan and Pope Innocent IV was the Franciscan monk John Plano Carpini.
Other Franciscans followed, trying to connect the Mongolians and Europeans.
“It seems appropriate now, nearly eight centuries later, that the first pope to visit Mongolia should also be the first to bear the name Francis,” Weatherford said.
Francis’ visit to Mongolia ties in with his previous travel routine of searching for countries where he could exercise his political and religious muscles.
In April, he was in Hungary, where he met Ukrainian refugees and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. In January, Francis visited conflict zones – the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan – where he traveled on a “pilgrimage for peace”. He has also toured countries including Kazakhstan, Iraq and South Africa in recent years.
The papal visit to Mongolia comes as the world watches China and Russia increase their cooperation and try to draw other countries into their orbit. Some say Ulaanbaatar might be an opportunity for the Vatican to sneak in through the back door, so to speak.
“Mongolia stands out as a potential channel through which the Catholic Church can strengthen relations with both China and Russia,” said Zulbayar Enkhbaatar, co-founder of Lemon Press, a financial media company in Mongolia. “Mongolia is a destination of strategic importance to the Catholic Church.”
Mongolia has some experience in international diplomacy. In recent years, the country has developed the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, which brings together countries including Japan and North Korea to discuss regional issues.
From a religious perspective, the pope will speak to a nation that mostly follows Tibetan Buddhism mixed with indigenous shamanism. According to the US State Department, about 40% of Mongolians are not religious, but among those who express a religious identity, 87% declare themselves Buddhist and only 2% are Christian.
Historically, the Mongols had contact with Christians since the seventh century, when Nestorian Christians reached the fringes of the Mongolian lands. During the reign of the Mongol Empire, in the thirteenth century AD, many Christian missionaries were sent from Europe to try to convert the Mongol khans.
Mongolia never became a Christian nation, but it has long been willing to learn from other cultures and religions.
“I hope the Pope’s visit will be a celebration of religious tolerance and openness,” said Oyongiril Tsedevdamba, head of the Mongolian Civic Unity Party and former Minister of Sports, Culture and Tourism.
She described the trip as historic, and expects Francis to see Mongolia as a peace-loving country.
“It does not matter how many Catholics there are in our Buddhist-majority country. It is important that all Mongolians embrace religious diversity and love peace and freedom,” she said.