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The Pope visits Mongolia, with an eye on Russia and China

Pope Francis has long expressed a desire to visit Russia and China in hopes of healing historic divisions in the Church and securing the future of the faith in this populous East. He came very close on Friday, landing in Mongolia, a country sandwiched between the two geopolitical giants, with a tiny Catholic population that no pope has visited before.

“The inhabitants are few,” Francis acknowledged in a brief remark on the plane to Mongolia, but he said the country that sometimes seemed so vast that it didn’t stop was also a place where “the culture is great”.

On Sunday, he called the trip “a much-desired visit which will be an opportunity to embrace a small church, but vibrant with faith and great with charity.”

But many observers inside and outside the Church wonder why Francis, who is 86 and often uses a wheelchair, traveled more than 8,000 kilometers to visit less than 1,500 Catholics, in a vast country where much of the largely nomadic population of 3.3 million people have virtually no idea who he is, according to a pollster.

The answer, the Vatican said, is that Mongolia, like other distant countries visited by Francis, talks about his priorities for the direction he wants the Church to take and his mission to improve cooperation and dialogue between the religions of the world. François also has the ambition to be heard on the secular scene and with two world powers with which he maintains difficult relations, at a time of great upheaval.

The Vatican says the main reason for the visit is to encourage the small Catholic community, in keeping with its concern to draw attention to the peripheries of the Church.

More than 40 percent of Mongolians say they have no religious identity, according to census data. Of those who call themselves religious, about 87 percent identify themselves as Buddhists. About 5 percent are Muslim, 4 percent identify as followers of shamanism and just 2 percent are Christian.

Last year, Francis stunned many in the Vatican by elevating an Italian missionary from Ulaanbaatar, the capital, which has been in Mongolia for decades, to the exalted status of cardinal, and giving him a coveted place in the powerful office of evangelization of the Vatican.

“It has been gradual and slow growth,” said Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, 49, describing his experience in Mongolia. It wasn’t, he said, “very sudden or significant in terms of the numbers, but a steady little growth.”

But the numbers remain exceptionally low and as a result there appears to be less than the usual buzz surrounding a papal visit.

“In fact, nobody talks about the pope,” said Sumati Luvsandendev, a prominent Mongolian political analyst and opinion pollster.

Beyond his meeting with the small Mongolian church, Francis will also take advantage of a meeting with representatives of the different Mongolian confessions to pursue his mission of interreligious tolerance.

Ulaanbaatar, heavily polluted and increasingly populated due to internal displacement, will be an opportunity for him to address the themes of migration and the environment which are at the heart of his pontificate.

Mongolia’s suffering from climate change, exploitation by mining interests and even the overproduction of cashmere by goats decimating pastures will allow it to amplify its cry for environmental protection, in a country where eagles and horses are at the heart of the national identity and where cattle are more numerous. people by about 20 to one.

The four-day visit to what Francis called the “Heart of Asia” began at Chinggis Khaan International Airport where he received a welcome gift of dried yoghurt instead of the usual gift horse – sometimes symbolic, sometimes real – offered to visiting dignitaries. His visit will include meetings with Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai and other authorities, Catholic charity groups and local clergy.

But this visit also brings Francis closer to two neighboring leaders, President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia and President Xi Jinping in China, who have thwarted his ambitions inside and outside the Church.

In 2018, Francis, seeking more access to China, struck a largely secret deal with the government to secure greater collaboration on the appointment of bishops. The pope usually appoints bishops, but the communist government has long insisted on appointing its own in order to control the state church more tightly.

Conservatives and human rights advocates have protested the Vatican’s decision to recognize some of these bishops and, they say, legitimize the practice – although the deal, designed to narrow the rift between the state and the Churches headed by Rome, recognizes Francis as the head of the Church. the Church and gave her an important role in the process.

Some have accused the pontiff of selling out religious freedom and selling out China’s long-suffering underground Church which does not recognize state-appointed bishops. But the Vatican argued the deal was worth it given the long-term goal of increased dialogue and a greater church presence in China.

Since then, China has only strained relations by continuing to suppress religious minorities, and it has systematically violated the spirit of the agreement by unilaterally appointing bishops. It is not yet known whether Chinese Catholics will cross the border with Mongolia to hear or even meet the pope during his visit.

Some experts suggest that the Vatican hopes that Mongolia, due to its geographical location and its close economic and political ties with China, can serve as an intermediary to improve relations. On his flight to Mongolia, Francis will fly over Chinese airspace, allowing him to send a customary telegram of greetings to Mr. Xi, a rare direct communication between them.

Even more worrying was Mongolia’s northern neighbour, Russia. Early in his pontificate, Francis continued his efforts to reconcile a more than 1,000-year-old schism between the Eastern and Western Church by meeting in Cuba with Patriarch Cyril I, head of the Russian Orthodox Church based in Moscow.

But Russia’s war in Ukraine shattered that effort and antagonized Francis, who blamed Kirill for being Mr Putin’s “choir boy”.

Francis’ lingering ambitions to keep the dream of reconciliation alive, experts say, have led to awkward moments of softening and kind words toward Russia. The latest came in recent days, when in video comments to young Catholics in St. Petersburg, Francis praised 18th century Russian leaders and the Greater Russia they helped create – an empire Mr. Putin invoked to prepare for his invasion of Ukraine.

“Never forget the legacy,” Francis said. “You are the heirs of Great Russia: the Great Russia of saints, rulers, the Great Russia of Peter I, of Catherine II, this great, enlightened empire, of great culture and great humanity.”

The Vatican did not publish these remarks, which were spontaneous, but they were heard in a clip broadcast by religious agencies and Russian media. They have drawn criticism from Ukrainians, who have long been frustrated by the pope’s efforts to maintain some kind of neutrality in hopes of playing a possible role in a peace deal, an ambition geopolitical experts see as a fantasy.

Pope Francis had no intention of “glorifying imperialist logic”, the Vatican said on Tuesday.

Many Mongols still feel culturally close to Russia after 70 years of Soviet-influenced communist rule that suppressed religion. The country opened up after the fall of communism, established relations with the Vatican in 1992 and enshrined religious freedom in its Constitution.

But while Mongolia’s neighbors may have heightened the resonance of the pope’s trip, the Vatican made it clear on Tuesday, when asked about possible encounters with the Chinese or Russians during his stay, that the focus was on Mongolia.

“The journey is Mongolia,” said Matteo Bruni, the pope’s spokesman. “Pope Francis will mainly go to talk to them.”

But the powers of the world were clearly on his mind. When a journalist on board the plane who showed him a Ukrainian soldier’s canteen, apparently punctured by shrapnel, asked him if diplomacy was difficult, François replied: “Yes, you can’t imagine how hard it is,” and he added, “And sometimes it’s hard. you need a sense of humor.


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