ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (AP) — Pope Francis on Saturday praised Mongolia’s tradition of religious freedom dating to the times of its founder, Genghis Khan, as he opened the first-ever papal visit to the Asian nation with a word of encouragement to its tiny Catholic flock.
Francis met with President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh inside a traditional Mongolian ger, or round yurt, set up inside the state palace and wrote a message in the guest book that he was visiting “a country young and ancient, modern and rich of tradition,” as a pilgrim of peace.
Francis is in Mongolia to minister to one of the world’s newest and smallest Catholic communities — around 1,450 Mongolians are Catholic — and make a diplomatic foray into a region where the Holy See has long had troubled relations, with Russia to the north and China to the south.
While Christianity has been present in the region for hundreds of years, the Catholic Church has only had a sanctioned presence in Mongolia since 1992, after the country abandoned its Soviet-allied communist government and enshrined religious freedom in its constitution.
While Catholicism is tolerated and legal, foreign missionaries working here lament that the government restricts their numbers and treats the church as a nongovernmental organization — limitations that the Holy See is hoping will be lifted with a comprehensive bilateral agreement.
In his remarks, Francis praised Mongolia’s tradition of religious liberty, noting that such tolerance existed even during the period of the Mongol Empire’s vast expansion over much of the world. At its height, the empire stretched as far west as Hungary to become the largest contiguous land empire in world history.
Nowadays, the landlocked nation sandwiched between Russia and China is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with traditional links to Tibet’s leading lamas, including the Dalai Lama.
“The fact that the empire could embrace such distant and varied lands over the centuries bears witness to the remarkable ability of your ancestors to acknowledge the outstanding qualities of the peoples present in its immense territory and to put those qualities at the service of a common development,” Francis told the president, diplomats and cultural leaders in remarks at the state palace.
“This model should be valued and reproposed in our own day,” he said.
Referring to the 13th-century period of relative political stability within the Mongol Empire that allowed trade and travel to flourish, Francis called for such a period of fraternity and peace to take root today and spread peace throughout the region.
“May heaven grant that today, on this earth devastated by countless conflicts, there be a renewal, respectful of international laws, of the condition of what was once the pax mongolica, that is the absence of conflicts,” he said.
Khurelsukh also referred to the “pax mongolica” in his remarks, saying that same spirit still guides Mongolia’s efforts to be a peaceful, multilateral player on the world stage.
“Achievements of pax mongolica have created the solid grounds for the development of mutual respect between different nations of the world, cherishing each other’s values and identities, enabling peaceful coexistence of various civilizations,” he said.
Later in the day, Francis met with bishops and the missionaries who have cultivated the Catholic faith here for the past three decades, presiding over a prayer in the ger-shaped St. Peter and Paul cathedral in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. On the altar sat a delicate wooden statue of the Madonna, which was found by a Mongolese woman in a landfill and now is a symbol of the church in the country.
As Francis entered and blessed the crowd with holy water, he was met with shouts of “Viva il Papa!” inside and out of the cathedral, where an estimated 2,000 people gathered.
Francis sought to encourage the missionaries, telling them not to be concerned by their “small numbers, limited successes or apparent irrelevance.” Rather, he urged them to be close to their Mongolian flocks, learn their language and love their culture.
“May you find refreshment, knowing that being little is not a problem but a resource,” he said. “God loves littleness, and through it he loves to accomplish great things.”
In the pews was one of the two Mongolese priests who have been ordained, the Rev. Peter Sanjaajav, who got a rousing applause from the crowd when he addressed Francis in Mongolian.
“Many thanks for coming to Mongolia, and for visiting our Church. Your visit makes us particularly happy,” he said.
Another Mongolian woman who converted, Rufina Chamingerel, told Francis she had spent 14 years learning her Catholic faith, to which she converted as a student. Addressing Francis in Italian, she acknowledged the Mongolian church is young and small.
“Our Church is in that phase typical of children who constantly ask their parents questions,” she said.
In his remarks to government authorities, Francis also praised Mongolia’s efforts to care for the environment. The vast, landlocked country, historically afflicted by weather extremes, is considered to be one of the countries 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.
Mongolia is set to host the 2026 U.N. conference on desertification and has launched a campaign to plant 1 billion trees across its vast steppes and mountains of grasslands.
The pope, however, noted the need to combat “the insidious threat of corruption,” an apparent reference to a scandal over Mongolia’s trade with China over the alleged theft of 385,000 tons of coal. In December, hundreds of people braved freezing cold temperatures in the capital to protest the scandal.
“Corruption is the fruit of a utilitarian and unscrupulous mentality that has impoverished whole countries,” he said.
The Mongolian 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.
Mongolians Catholic and not welcomed Francis’ visit, saying it was a sign of Mongolia’s prominence on the world stage.
“The visit of Roman pope is the proof that Mongolians are peace loving, mindful and spiritual nation,” said Chinbat Gantulga, a Mongolian engineer.“It also shows that Mongolia has a religious freedom, and respect of spiritual beliefs of anyone.”
Zhang Weiqun contributed to this report.
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