Pope Francis will show support for interfaith dialogue Sunday during his final full day in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, a visit that has seen him seek to build bridges with China.
The morning address, which unites 10 leaders of major religions in Mongolia — a young democracy whose Constitution provides for religious freedom — comes as the 86-year-old pope seeks to tacitly send the message the nation’s neighbours, in particular China, that spirituality is healthy for societies and not a threat.
During a gathering of Catholic missionaries Saturday at the city’s Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, Francis said governments had “nothing to fear” from the Catholic Church.
“Governments and secular institutions have nothing to fear from the Church’s work of evangelisation, for she has no political agenda to advance…” said the pontiff, without specifically mentioning China.
There are only about 1,400 Catholics in Mongolia out of a population of 3.3 million people. Only 25 are priests, and only two of those are Mongolian.
Most Mongolians of faith are Buddhist or practice Shamanism.
By venturing to the isolated Central Asian country, the Argentine Jesuit has hoped not only to encourage the tiny Catholic community of missionaries and the faithful, but use his presence at China’s backdoor to try to improve the Vatican’s relations with Beijing.
Beijing’s Communist Party, which exercises strict control over all recognised religious institutions, is wary of the Catholic Church on its territory.
The Holy See renewed a deal last year with Beijing allowing both sides a say in appointing bishops in China.
Critics have called the move a dangerous Vatican concession in exchange for a presence in the country.
– ‘Pilgrim of friendship’ –
Mongolia feted the pontiff Saturday with a welcome ceremony that included an honour guard and phalanx of horsemen in metal armour on parade.
Calling himself a “pilgrim of friendship”, Francis extolled the country’s virtues, including its nomadic people “respectful of the delicate balances of the ecosystem”.
He said Mongolia’s Shamanist and Buddhist traditions of living in harmony with nature could help in the “urgent and no longer deferrable efforts to protect and preserve planet Earth”.
Religions, when not “corrupted” by sectarian deviations, help create sound societies, he said.
They “represent a safeguard against the insidious threat of corruption, which effectively represents a serious menace to the development of any human community”.
Mongolia has been marred by corruption and environmental degradation in recent years, with its capital suffering from some of the world’s worst air quality and an embezzlement scandal sparking street protests last year.
Vast swathes of the country’s territory are also at risk of desertification due to climate change, overgrazing and mining.
– Global figure –
In the vast Sukhbaatar Plaza, named for a Mongol revolutionary hero, many had hoped to catch a glimpse of the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.
Among them was Mongolian Enkhtur Dagvadorj, who said Francis “seems a great person. He is indeed a global figure”.
“Although Mongolians are Buddhists, it is lovely to receive a Pope from Rome in our country,” he said.
“His visit is very beneficial to our country in many aspects, from reputation to the economy.”
Francis’ trip drew pilgrims from the wider region as well, including Chinese Catholics, some of whom waved the country’s red flag as they waited for a glimpse of the pontiff.
Later Sunday, Francis will preside over mass inside a newly built ice hockey arena.
Originally published as Pope to lead interfaith dialogue in Mongolia