Pope Francis became the first head of the Vatican to ever visit Mongolia at the invitation of the Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa. The Pope’s visit to Mongolia from August 31 to September 4 marked an extraordinary milestone for Vatican-Ulaanbaatar diplomatic relations, but also shone a spotlight on Mongolia’s religious freedom.
Pope Francis’ arrival in Ulaanbaatar ignited something intangible in Mongolian society despite its predominantly Buddhist population. Upon arrival, the Holy Father was welcomed by Foreign Minister Battsetseg Batmunkh and an Italian-speaking Mongolian girl, who was wearing a traditional deel and holding flowers.
The Holy See and Mongolia established official diplomatic relations in 1992, when Mongolia became a parliamentary democracy. Since then, four Mongolian presidents have personally met with the different heads of the Vatican.
In 2000, Mongolian President Bagabandi Natsag became the first president to meet the Pope – the late Pope John Paul II. Eleven years later, in 2011, during an official state visit to Italy, then-President Elbegdorj Tsakhia met with the late Pope Benedict XVI. Elbegdorj also met with Pope Francis at an anti-death penalty world conference in 2014.
Last year, in 2022, former President and Prime Minister Enkhbayar Nambar personally delivered President Khurelsukh’s solemn invitation for Pope Francis to visit Mongolia.
During an interview with the National Catholic Register, Enkhbayar stated that the pope’s visit would underscore Mongolia’s religious freedom. He added that Mongolia’s religious diversity was both an outgrowth of the country’s democratic reforms and a continuation of “the tradition established in the Great Mongolian Empire more than 800 years ago when different religions coexisted peacefully.”
Pope Francis’ journey to Mongolia highlighted historical ties between the Roman Catholics and the Mongols since the 13th century. During his visit, Mongolian leaders, including Khurelsukh and Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai also reiterated the 800 years of relations between the Vatican and the Mongols.
Lauren Arnold, an art historian, and a former research fellow at The Ricci Institute wrote about the early Nestorians reaching the Mongol courts between 1251 to 1294. In her book “Princely Gifts and Papal Treasure,” she highlighted Mongol diplomacy and religious freedom in the courts of Monkh Khaan and Khublai Khaan. She wrote, “In fact, there was almost a religious free-for-all at the Mongol courts, various groups including Daoists, Buddhists, Nestorians, Muslims, and Latin Christians.”
As recorded in the Catholic historical archives, the Assyrian Church of the East – also known as the Nestorian Church – assisted in the registration of the first diocese covering the Mongols, the Diocese of Peking in 1690. During this time, much of the interactions between Catholic missionaries and Mongols traveled via China; between 1690 and 1840, Jesuits, Protestants, Norwegians, and Swedish missionaries reached southern Mongolia. One of the Catholic orders, Jesuits had a prominent influence in China.
Pope Francis’ journey to Mongolia is, in a way, a compendium of all these historical connections, and it naturally centered on the inheritors of these efforts: the Mongolian Catholics.
On September 2, Pope Francis met with the small community of Mongolian Catholics, who number just 1,500. Currently, there are 75 missionaries and nine churches registered in the country. During the Pope’s Mass at the Steppe Arena, an additional 1,000 tourists and people joined to hear the whisper of the Gospel.
Among many bilateral interactions, one meeting was particularly notable. Pope Francis met with Ms. Tsetsgee, a Mongolian woman who found a wooden image of the Virgin Mary in a trash dump 10 years ago.
But the Pope also used his visit to advance his emphasis on inter-faith dialogue and cooperation. While in Mongolia, Pope Francis also held an ecumenical and interreligious gathering of the heads of 12 faiths recognized in the country..
His message to the various faiths highlighted the important role of religion, not only in Mongolian society but worldwide. “Our responsibilities are crucial at any given point in history. Our life journey must exemplify the declaration of each of our schools of belief. The embracing and the co-existence of different faiths contribute to the development of humankind,” Pope Francis declared.
Last year, the first delegation of Mongolian Buddhists visited the Vatican for an interreligious dialogue. Interreligious dialogue, acceptance, and respect for the different religious congregations are the founding principles of Mongolia’s freedom of religion, and those pillars have underpinned the 31 years of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Ulaanbaatar.
By the same token, Catholic missions in Mongolia have slowly expanded to serve more than religious missions.
In 2017, the Church of Mongolia celebrated the 25th anniversary of Mongolia’s new evangelization. The late Bishop Wenceslao Padilla (1949-2018), who established the first Catholic mission in Mongolia, stated during the jubilee that “the Church in Mongolia is stable, with its presence in different districts, with different parishes, with socio-educational services in society.”
At the same time, there are other Catholic organizations that serve the Mongolian community. Vatican-based confederations such as Caritas Internationalis not only serve the tiny Catholic community in Mongolia but assist with social issues such as gender violence, poverty, disaster risk reduction, and environmental care.
Pope Francis’ trip to Mongolia was not only a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for the Mongolian Catholics, but it drew Catholics from around the world. Ulaanbaatar saw around 3,500 tourists – including Mexican businesspeople, religious representatives from the Philippines and Hong Kong, and practicing Catholics from China and Europe – travel to Mongolia to be in the Pope’s presence.
The gathering of such diversity bequeathed greater significance to Mongolia’s religious freedom and its role on the world stage. The pilgrimage by Catholics from neighboring China was especially poignant, as the Christian community there continues to face pressure from the authorities. Pope Francis’ outreach to Beijing has been rebuffed, leaving a similar trip to China a distant prospect.
The geopolitical angle of Pope Francis’ visit to Mongolia is clear. His message to Mongolia and the Mongolian government is that the Vatican supports Mongolia’s democracy, respect for religious freedom, and peaceful foreign policy. Recognizing the 800 years of contacts between the two peoples, Pope Francis gifted Mongolia with an official copy of a letter from Guyug Khaan of the Mongol Empire (written in 1246), which was stored in the Vatican archives.
From Mongolia’s perspective, the Pope’s visit and his message to Mongolia are something to celebrate, but they also leave current and future governments with great responsibilities. At a time of great change and turbulence, Mongolia must safeguard what it has accomplished in the realm of religious freedom.
In his farewell address, Pope Francis summed up his thoughts on the country: “Where there is home, there is life. Mongolia has become a home for the lost ones and is the light of hope.”