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Pope Francis Concludes Historic Mongolia Trip with Hopes for Improved China Relations

Pope Francis concluded his historic visit to Mongolia on Monday, leaving a lasting impact on both the tiny Catholic community and neighboring China. 

The five-day mission, which garnered international attention due to its implications for religious freedom in China, culminated with the inauguration of the House of Mercy, a vital healthcare institution for the most vulnerable in Mongolia’s capital.

During a Mass on Sunday, Pope Francis extended greetings to China, describing its citizens as “noble” and encouraging Catholics in China to be both “good Christians and good citizens.” This message, seen as a diplomatic gesture, was closely monitored for China’s response.

On Monday, China’s foreign ministry responded with a positive attitude towards improving relations with the Vatican. Mao Ning, a ministry spokesperson, confirmed that Beijing has maintained communication with the Vatican. The pope’s comments in Mongolia regarding China’s citizens and its Catholic community sparked optimism for potential advancements in Sino-Vatican relations.

The primary objective of Pope Francis’ journey was to visit Mongolia’s small Catholic community, which consists of approximately 1,450 Catholics in a population of 3.3 million, predominantly Buddhist. On Sunday, a remarkable event unfolded as nearly the entire Catholic community gathered under one roof with the pope, highlighting the significance of his presence.

Pope Francis concluded his mission by inaugurating the House of Mercy, a facility that provides healthcare services to Mongolia’s marginalized groups, including the homeless, victims of domestic abuse, and migrants. The House of Mercy, established in a converted school, was conceived by Mongolia’s leading Catholic cleric, Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo. It will serve as a coordination hub for Catholic missionary institutions and local volunteers.

In his address at the House of Mercy, Pope Francis emphasized that a nation’s true progress is measured not solely by economic wealth or military power but by its commitment to the health, education, and integral development of its people. He also sought to dispel the misconception that Catholic institutions aim to convert individuals, emphasizing that caring for others is not a tactic to entice people to join the religion.

During his visit, around two dozen Chinese Catholics gathered outside the House of Mercy to receive blessings from the pope. Dressed in uniforms with the phrase “Love Jesus,” they sang a Christian hymn in Mandarin as the pope’s motorcade departed. One woman managed to breach security and received a blessing, expressing overwhelming joy at the encounter.

Pope Francis’ visit to Mongolia was notable for its subtle references and appeals to neighboring China. Mongolia, once part of China until 1921, shares a complex history with its powerful neighbor. The Vatican’s relations with the ruling Communist Party of China have been tense, particularly since the signing of a landmark agreement in 2018 regarding the appointment of bishops.

On Saturday, Pope Francis delivered a message seemingly directed at China, emphasizing that governments should not fear the Catholic Church because it does not have a political agenda. China has been pursuing a policy of “Sinicisation” of religion, aiming to eliminate foreign influences and ensure obedience to the Communist Party, resulting in increased restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the party’s authority.

While China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, recent years have witnessed a tightening of restrictions on religious practices perceived as a threat to the party’s dominance. In December, the United States designated China, among others, as a country of particular concern under the Religious Freedom Act due to severe violations.

The phrase employed by Pope Francis on Sunday, “good Christians and good citizens,” is a recurring message from the Vatican, aimed at persuading communist governments that granting Catholics more freedom would contribute to their countries’ social and economic progress.

Pope Francis’ visit to Mongolia, marked by his gestures towards China and his commitment to serving the vulnerable, represents a significant moment in the ongoing dialogue between the Vatican and China, carrying potential implications for the future of religious freedom and relations between the two entities.

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