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Pope Francis stands with Cardinal John Tong Hon and Hong Kong's Archbishop Stephen Chow as he attends the Holy Mass in the Steppe Arena, during his Apostolic Journey in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia September 3, 2023. (Source: Reuters)

Pope Francis Makes His First Visit to Mongolia

Pope Francis visited Mongolia for the first time on September 1, 2023. The Pope paid a four-day visit to Ulaanbaatar at the invitation of the Mongolian government. Christians, numbering around 1500, make up less than 2 percent of Mongolia’s total population of 3.5 million. Pope Francis praised Mongolia’s tradition of religious freedom dating to the times of its founder, Genghis Khan. He said he was visiting “a country young and ancient, modern and rich of tradition” as a pilgrim of peace. He said the church had no political agenda in Mongolia and that “governments and secular institutions have nothing to fear from the Church’s work of evangelization.” Prior to his departure, the Pope said the church in Mongolia was “small in numbers, but lively in faith and great in charity.”

Francis met with elected officials, Mongolia’s Catholics, celebrated mass and engaged in inter-religious dialogue.

Many who follow the Pope wondered why the 86 year old who hasn’t been in good health was making the long distance visit to a country that has such a tiny Christian community. Quite a few saw a geopolitical angle to the purpose of the visit. The New York Times ran an article titled In Visit to Tiny Flock in Mongolia, Pope Has an Eye on Russia and China. Given Mongolia’s location and ties with China and Russia, some speculated that the visit might be able to create an opening for dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing.

It is customary for the Pope to send messages to leaders of countries as he flies through their airspace. Flying over China, the Pope sent greetings to Xi Jinping.  “I send greetings of good wishes to Your Excellency and the people of China as I pass through your country’s airspace en route to Mongolia. Assuring you of my prayers for the wellbeing of the nation, I invoke upon all of you the divine blessings of unity and peace,” said the Pope. He sent another overture to China at the end of a Mass service on September 3 when he sent greetings to China and called Chinese citizens “noble” people and asked Catholics in China to be “good Christian and good citizens.” The Pope was flanked by the former and current archbishops of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong Hon and Archbishop Stephen Chow as he made the overture to China.

About 40 percent of Mongolians say they do not identify with any particular religion, but among those who expressed a religious identity, 87 percent declared themselves Buddhist. About 5 percent are Muslim, 4 percent identify as adherents of shamanism and remaining 2 percent are Christians.