Pope Francis formally began his 8,000-kilometer trip to Mongolia on Saturday, a country sandwiched between Russia and China that has a tiny Catholic population.
Catholics from Mongolia and other countries, some seen waving Chinese flags, gathered in the main square of capital city Ulaanbaatar to catch a glimpse of the pontiff during an official welcome ceremony.
With just 1,500 Catholics in the entire country, the visit was lacking the usual fanfare and mass crowds typically associated with Pope Francis’ trips abroad. When he visited Portugal in August 1.5 million people attended one of his vigils.
Pictures from the scene showed small gatherings of around 100 people, with lower security in place than is usually seen when the Pope visits foreign countries.
Yang Guang from China told Reuters: “I’m just extremely happy because this is the first time I’ve seen him. It’s not as if I have this kind of opportunity all the time. I’m just very happy.”
The Pope, who is 86 and has been suffering from poor health, arrived on Friday after a 10-hour flight. He came at the invite of the government and spent the first day resting,
The official visit comes at a time when the Vatican’s relations with Mongolia’s two powerful neighbors are strained.
China, which shares a 4,600-kilometer border with Mongolia, has been accused of violating an accord signed with the Vatican in 2018 which allowed jointly-approved Catholic bishops in China for the first time. Prior to the agreement, bishops appointed by either the Vatican or the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association were not recognized by the other party.
China is officially an atheist state, but religious practice is legal in the country – albeit under tight government supervision and surveillance.
The Vatican’s relations with Moscow have deteriorated over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Pope has also drawn criticism from Ukraine with remarks made about Russia’s war. Most recently he was accused by Ukrainian officials of “imperialist propaganda” after he urged young Russian Catholics to view themselves as descendants of the Russian empire during a video address.
In a speech delivered from Ulaanbaatar on Saturday, the Pope said that governments and secular institutions have “nothing to fear from the Church’s work of evangelization.”
Without naming any country in particular, he went on to say that the Church “has no political agenda to advance, but is sustained by the quiet power of God’s grace and a message of mercy and truth, which is meant to promote the good of all.”
During the speech, Pope Francis also called on leaders to dispel “the dark clouds of war.”
Mongolia’s President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh told the crowd: “With a view to peacefully contributing to the international community’s efforts in addressing regional and global security challenges, Mongolia has been offering its initiatives and actively engaging with our immediate and third neighbors.”
According to Vatican News, the most recent data from 2023 puts the current number of Catholics in Mongolia at around 1,500 out of an overall population of 3.5 million.
This compares to only 14 Catholics in the country in 1995, per Vatican News.