Pope heads to Mongolia to minister to its few Catholics and complete centuries-old East-West mission


VATICAN CITY — When Pope Francis travels to Mongolia this week, he will in some ways be completing a mission begun by the 13th-century Pope Innocent IV, who dispatched emissaries east to ascertain the intentions of the rapidly expanding Mongol Empire and beseech its leaders to halt the bloodshed and convert.

Those medieval exchanges between Roman pope and Mongolian khan were full of bellicose demands for submission and conversion, with each side claiming to be acting in the name of God, according to texts of the letters that survive.

But the exchanges also showed mutual respect at a time when the Catholic Church was waging Crusades and the Mongol Empire was conquering lands as far west as Hungary in what would become the largest contiguous land empire in world history.

Some 800 years later, Francis won’t be testing new diplomatic waters or seeking to proselytize Mongolia’s mostly Buddhist people when he arrives in the capital Ulaanbaatar Friday for a four-day visit.

His trip is nevertheless a historic meeting of East and West, the first-ever visit by a Roman pontiff to Mongolia to minister to one of the tiniest, newest Catholic communities in the world.

“In a way, what’s happened is that both sides have moved on,” said Christopher Atwood, professor of Mongolian and Chinese frontier and ethnic history at the University of Pennsylvania. “Once upon a time, it was either/or: Either the world was ruled by the pope, or the world was ruled by the Mongol Empire. And now I think both sides are much more tolerant.”

Officially, there are only 1,450 Catholics in Mongolia and the Catholic Church has only had a sanctioned presence since 1992, after Mongolia shrugged off its Soviet-allied communist government and enshrined religious freedom in its constitution. Francis last year upped the Mongolian church’s standing when he made a cardinal out of its leader, the Italian missionary Giorgio Marengo.

“It is amazing (for the pope) to come to a country that is not known to the world for its Catholicism,” said Uugantsetseg Tungalag, a Catholic who works with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in a nursing home in the capital. “When the pope visits us, other countries will learn that it has been 30 years since Catholicism came to Mongolia.”

The Mongol Empire under its famed founder Genghis Khan was known for tolerating people of different faiths among those it conquered, and Francis will likely emphasize that tradition of religious coexistence when he presides over an interfaith meeting Sunday. It was after all, one of Genghis Khan’s descendants, Kublai Khan, who welcomed Marco Polo into his court in Mongol-ruled China, providing the Venetian merchant with the experiences that would give Europe one of the best written accounts of Asia, its culture, geography and people.

Invited to Francis’ interfaith event are Mongolian Buddhists, Jewish, Muslim and Shinto representatives as well as members of Christian churches that have established a presence in Mongolia in the last 30 years, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which officially claims more than 12,500 members in Mongolia in 22 congregations.

In a message to Mongolians ahead of his visit, Francis emphasized their interfaith traditions and said he was travelling to the “heart of Asia” as a brother to all.

“It is a much-desired visit, which will be an opportunity to embrace a Church that is small in number, but vibrant in faith and great in charity; and also to meet at close quarters a noble, wise people, with a strong religious tradition that I will have the honor of getting to know, especially in the context of an interreligious event,” Francis said Sunday.

Aside from the historic first, Francis’ trip holds great geopolitical import: With Mongolia sandwiched between China and Russia, Francis will be travelling to a region that has long been one of the thorniest for the Holy See to negotiate.

Francis will fly through Chinese airspace in both directions, allowing him a rare opportunity to send an official telegram of greetings to President Xi Jinping at a time when Vatican-Chinese relations are once again strained over the nomination of Chinese bishops.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s crackdown on religious minorities grind on, Francis will be visiting a relatively neutral player but one that is striving to show its regional importance in the shadow of its two powerful neighbors, said Manduhai Buyandelger, a professor of anthropology at MIT and a Mongolia scholar.

“I think Mongolia is a very safe arena for the pope to land to demonstrate his outreach, as well as to show Mongolia’s belonging on equal stage with the rest of the world,” she said from Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolia’s environmental precariousness, climate shocks and the increasing desertification of its land are likely to be raised by the pope, given he has made combatting climate change and addressing their impacts on vulnerable peoples a priority of his 10-year pontificate.

Mongolia, a vast, landlocked country historically afflicted by weather extremes, is considered to be one of the most affected by climate change. The country has already experienced a 2.1-degree Celsius (3.8-degree Fahrenheit) increase in average temperatures over the past 70 years, and an estimated 77% of its land is degraded because of overgrazing and climate change, according to the U.N. Development Program.

The cycles of dry, hot summers followed by harsh, snowy winters are particularly devastating for Mongolia’s nomadic herders, since their livestock are less able to fatten up on grass in summer before cold winters, said Nicola Di Cosmo, a Mongolian historian and professor of East Asian Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

“If these events become more and more common and more frequent … this change interferes with this very delicate pastoral economy, which is a delicate balance between the resources of the grassland and the animals using those resources,” Di Cosmo said.

Already, many of Mongolia’s herders, who comprised about a third of the population of 3.3 million, have abandoned their traditional livelihoods to settle around Mongolia’s capital, stressing social services in a country where already nearly 1 in 3 people live in poverty.

More recently, Mongolia has turned to extraction industries, particularly copper, coal, gold, to fuel the economy, which gets more than 90% of its export revenue from minerals. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Francis would likely refer to this trend in his remarks; Francis has frequently spoken out about the harm caused by extraction industries, particularly on the natural environment and local populations.

Munkh-Erdene Lkhamsuren, a professor of anthropology at the National University of Mongolia, said he hoped Francis would speak out about “predatory” Western mining companies which, he said, together with Mongolian officials, are robbing Mongolia of its natural wealth.

In December, hundreds of people braved freezing cold temperatures in the capital to protest corruption in Mongolia’s trade with China over the alleged theft of 385,000 tons of coal.

The government has declared 2023 to be an “anti-corruption year” and says it is carrying out a five-part plan based on Transparency International, the global anti-graft watchdog that ranked Mongolia 116th last year in its corruption perceptions index.

“It is well known fact that most common Mongolians now see their country as a victim of a neo-colonialism,” Lkhamsuren said.

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Associated Press journalist Zhang Weiqun in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, contributed to this report.

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