Pope Francis undertakes a historic trip to Mongolia: a Catholic minority and a former mission await him

A Mongolian man walks past a banner promoting Pope Francis’ visit near a church in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

When Pope Francis travels to Mongolia this week, he will in some way be completing a mission begun by Pope Innocent IV in the 13th century, who sent envoys east to determine the intentions of the rapidly expanding Mongol Empire and plead with its leaders to stop bloodshed and convert.

Those medieval exchanges between the Roman Pope and the Mongol khan were filled with warlike demands for submission and conversion, with each side claiming to act in the name of God, according to surviving texts of the letters.

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 will not be testing new diplomatic waters or seeking to proselytize Mongolia’s largely Buddhist people when he arrives in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, on Friday for a four-day visit.

Pope heads to Mongolia to minister to its few Catholics and complete century-old East-West mission
Sanjaajav Tserenkhand, an assistant priest at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, leads a mass at the Catholic Church in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Howeverhis trip is a historic meeting between East and West, the first visit by a Roman pontiff to Mongolia to minister to one of the smallest and newest Catholic communities in the world.

“In a way, what happened is that both sides moved on,” said Christopher Atwood, professor of Mongolian-Chinese ethnic and border history at the University of Pennsylvania. “Once upon a time the situation was: 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 one authorized presence since 1992, after Mongolia shrugged off its Soviet-allied communist government and enshrined religious freedom in its constitution. Last year, Francis improved the position of the Mongolian church when he made its leader, Italian missionary Giorgio Marengo, a cardinal.

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

Pope heads to Mongolia to minister to its few Catholics and complete century-old East-West mission
A Mongolian boy plays with a ball near a banner promoting Pope Francis’ visit to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

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

To the interfaith event of Francisco are Mongolian Buddhist guests, Jewish, Muslim and Shinto representatives, as well as members of Christian churches who have established a presence in Mongolia in the past 30 years, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially claims to have more than 12,500 members in Mongolia in 22 congregations.

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

“It is a highly 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 up close a noble, wise people with a strong religious tradition that I will have the honor to meet, especially in the context of an interreligious event,” Francis said Sunday.

Pope heads to Mongolia to minister to its few Catholics and complete century-old East-West mission
A wedding couple walks past the Government Palace, also known as the State Palace, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Aside from the historical scoop, Francis’ trip has great geopolitical significance: With Mongolia caught between China and Russia, Francis will travel to a region that has long been one of the most difficult for the Holy See to negotiate.

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

As Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s crackdown on religious minorities continue, Francis will visit a relatively neutral player that is struggling to show its regional importance in the shadow of its two powerful neighbors, said Manduhai Buyandelger, an anthropology professor at MIT and a Mongolian academic.

“I think Mongolia is a very safe arena for the Pope to land and demonstrate his reach, as well as show that Mongolia belongs on the same stage as the rest of the world,” he said from Ulaanbaatar.

Pope heads to Mongolia to minister to its few Catholics and complete century-old East-West mission
A boy plays near a banner promoting the visit of Pope Francis hanging in front of the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The pope is likely to mention Mongolia’s environmental precariousness, climate impacts and increasing desertification of his land, as he has made combating climate change and addressing its impacts on vulnerable peoples a priority of his 10-year pontificate.

Mongolia, a vast landlocked country historically affected by extreme weather events, is considered one of the hardest hit by climate change. The country has already experienced a 2.1 degree Celsius (3.8 degree Fahrenheit) rise in average temperatures over the past 70 years, and an estimated 77% of its land is degraded due to overgrazing and climate change. , according to the United Nations Development Program.

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

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

Pope heads to Mongolia to minister to its few Catholics and complete century-old East-West mission
Mongolian worshipers pray during a mass at the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Many of Mongolia’s herdsmen, who made up about a third of the population of 3.3 million, have already abandoned their traditional livelihoods to settle around the Mongolian capital, emphasizing social services in a country where almost 1 in 3 people already lives in poverty.

More recently, Mongolia has turned to extractive industries, particularly copper, coal and gold, to boost the economy, which derives more than 90% of its income from mineral exports. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Francis would likely refer to this trend in his comments; Francisco has frequently spoken out about the damage caused by extractive industries, particularly to the natural environment and local populations.

Munkh-Erdene Lkhamsuren, a professor of anthropology at the National University of Mongolia, said he expected Francis to speak about “predatory” Western mining companies who he said, along with Mongolian officials, are stripping Mongolia of its natural wealth.

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

Pope heads to Mongolia to minister to its few Catholics and complete century-old East-West mission
A sister prays during a mass at the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

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

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

(with information from AP)

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