Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia — Beneath the towering statue of 13th-century warrior Genghis Khan, Pope Francis was not greeted by hordes of people in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, on Saturday.
Rather than the throngs of thousands to which he is accustomed, around 200 worshipers from one of the world’s smallest and newest Catholic communities enthusiastically welcomed the pontiff to the city’s central Sükhbaatar square, where he sat with Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh.
“Viva il Papa,” chanted the small but cheering crowd, some of whom waved Mongolian and Vatican flags as guards dressed in traditional blue, red and yellow outfits stood nearby.
“It’s a blessing, we are very happy to see him in Mongolia, we never thought he would come here,” Ming Baldorg, 33, told NBC News. “We are all surprised. We are shocked but very happy.
Yang Guang, 37, a Chinese Catholic living in Ulaanbaatar, said he hopes Francis will one day visit his native country. “I believe one day it will happen, we have to trust in the Lord,” he said.
Later, in a speech delivered at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Ulaanbaatar, Francis spoke of the roots of Catholicism in Mongolia, where the Church has been present for centuries. But Catholicism was only sanctioned after the country abandoned its Soviet-allied communist government in 1992. As a result, the Catholic community numbers only about 1,500 people.
“The events of the first millennium and the work of evangelization carried out by the missionaries of Syriac tradition along the Silk Road were followed by a remarkable missionary outreach,” he said, before asking: “ How not to evoke the diplomatic missions of the 13th century?”
Francis delivered his speech to the president, diplomats and cultural leaders at the State Palace, where he praised Mongolia’s tradition of religious freedom, noting that such tolerance existed before and during the expansion of the Mongol Empire over large areas of the world.
“The fact that the empire was able to embrace such distant and varied lands over the centuries testifies to the remarkable capacity of your ancestors to recognize the exceptional qualities of the peoples present on its immense territory and to put these qualities at the service of a common development. “, said Francis, according to the Associated Press. “This model should be valued and offered again in our day,” he said.
Lamenting a “land devastated by countless conflicts” and calling for a renewed respect for international law, the pontiff also referred to the “Pax Mongolica”, the Latin for Mongol peace, a period of relative stability in Eurasia in the 13th and 14th centuries among those living in the conquered territories of the Mongol Empire.
While Catholicism has been legal in Mongolia since the end of Soviet rule in 1992, Francis hopes to reach a bilateral agreement with the government that would lift current restrictions on the number of worshipers and end the treatment of the Church as an unregistered organization. government, a thorn in the side. on the part of foreign missionaries working in the region.