Pope will include Latter-day Saints in interfaith meetings during his landmark visit to Mongolia

vatican city • In a way, when Pope Francis travels to Mongolia this week, he will be fulfilling a mission begun by Pope Innocent IV in the 13th century when he sent envoys east to ascertain the intentions of the rapidly expanding Mongol Empire and its leaders implore them to stop the bloodshed and convert.

These medieval exchanges between the Roman pope and the Mongol khan were fraught with bellicose demands for submission and conversion, with each side claiming to be acting in the name of God, as extant texts of the letters show.

But the exchange also showed mutual respect at a time when the Catholic Church was waging Crusades and the Mongol Empire conquered 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 trying new diplomatic realms or attempting to proselytize Mongolia’s predominantly Buddhist people when he arrives in the capital Ulaanbaatar on Friday for a four-day visit.

Still, his trip is a historic meeting of East and West, the first visit by a Roman Pope to Mongolia to minister to one of the smallest, youngest Catholic communities in the world.

“In a way, both sides have evolved,” said Christopher Atwood, a professor of Mongolian and Chinese frontier and ethnic history at the University of Pennsylvania. “Once upon a time it was either/or: 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 a sanctioned presence since 1992, after Mongolia ditched its Soviet-allied communist government and enshrined religious freedom in its constitution. Francis boosted the Mongolian Church’s standing last year when he made a cardinal out of its leader, the Italian missionary Giorgio Marengo.

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

The Mongol Empire, under its famous founder Genghis Khan, was known for tolerating people of different faiths among its conquerors, and Francis is likely to emphasize this tradition of religious coexistence when he chairs an interfaith meeting 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 and gave the Venetian merchant the experiences that gave Europe one of the finest written accounts of Asia, its culture, geography and people.

Mongolian Buddhists, Jewish, Muslim and Shinto representatives, as well as members of Christian churches that have established a presence in Mongolia over the past 30 years, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, officially In Mongolia has more than 12,500 members in 22 congregations.

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

“It is a much desired visit that will be an opportunity to embrace a church small in number but alive 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 of knowing, especially in the context of an inter-religious event,” Francis said on Sunday.

Aside from the historic premiere, Francis’ trip is of great geopolitical significance: with Mongolia sandwiched between China and Russia, Francis will be traveling to a region that has long been one of the most sensitive negotiating regions for the Holy See.

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

As Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s crackdown on religious minorities continue, Francis will visit a relatively neutral actor but eager to demonstrate its regional prominence in the shadow of its two powerful neighbors, said Manduhai Buyandelger, a professor of anthropology at MIT and a Mongolia scholar.

“I think Mongolia is a very safe place for the Pope to land, to demonstrate his reach and show Mongolia’s belonging on an equal footing with the rest of the world,” she said from Ulaanbaatar.

The pope is likely to bring up the precarious environment, climate shocks and increasing desertification in Mongolia, having made combating climate change and managing its impact on vulnerable peoples a priority of his ten-year pontificate.

Mongolia, a vast landlocked country with a history of extreme weather, is recognized as one of the countries hardest hit by climate change. According to the UN Development Programme, the country has already seen average temperatures rise by 2.1 degrees Celsius (3.8 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past 70 years, and an estimated 77% of its land has been degraded due to overgrazing and climate change.

The cycles of dry, hot summers followed by severe, snowy winters are particularly devastating for Mongolia’s nomadic herders, as their livestock are less able to fatten up on grass in the summer before cold winters, Nicola Di Cosmo said , a Mongolian historian and Professor of East Asian Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

“As these events become more and more frequent…this change is disrupting this very delicate pastoral economy that represents a delicate balance between the resources of the grasslands and the animals that use those resources,” Di Cosmo said.

Many of Mongolia’s pastoralists, who make up about a third of the country’s 3.3 million people, have already abandoned their traditional livelihoods to settle near Mongolia’s capital, straining social services in a country where almost everyone already is Third lives in poverty.

More recently, Mongolia has turned to mining industries, particularly copper, coal and gold, to boost the economy, which derives more than 90% of its export earnings from minerals. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Francis is likely to refer to this trend in his remarks; Francis has spoken frequently about the damage the mining industry is causing, particularly to the natural environment and local people.

Munkh-Erdene Lkhamsuren, a professor of anthropology at the National University of Mongolia, said he hoped Francis would comment on “predatory” Western mining companies who he said are working with Mongolian officials to rob 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.

The government has declared 2023 the “anti-corruption year” and says it is implementing a five-part plan based on Transparency International, the global anti-corruption regulator that ranked Mongolia 116th in its Corruption Perceptions Index last year.

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


Associated Press journalist Zhang Weiqun from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, contributed to this report.


The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Justin Scaccy

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