Pope Francis embarked on a journey to Mongolia, a predominantly Buddhist nation with just 1,400 Catholics.
This visit is seen as a potential bridge for improving the Vatican’s complicated relations with China, a country with which the Holy See has faced ongoing diplomatic challenges.
On Thursday, Pope Francis, accompanied by his entourage, departed from Rome at 6:30 p.m. (1630 GMT) on a chartered ITA Airways plane bound for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
The journey was expected to span approximately 9 hours and 30 minutes, including an hour-long flight over China before reaching Mongolia. During the flight, Pope Francis was scheduled to send a customary message to Chinese President Xi Jinping, a ritual he observes with the leaders of all countries he flies over. While these messages often convey blessings and goodwill, the one addressed to President Xi holds particular significance due to the ongoing complexities in Vatican-Beijing relations.
Historically, Mongolia was under Chinese rule until 1921, and it maintains strong political and economic ties with Beijing. Diplomatic observers suggest that Mongolia could potentially serve as an intermediary in Vatican-China relations, although it remains uncertain if any mainland Chinese Catholics will cross the border to attend the Pope’s visit.
Pope Francis’ decision to visit countries where Catholics are a minority is in line with his broader mission to spotlight marginalized communities and global issues on society’s peripheries. Notably, he has not visited many of Western Europe’s capital cities.
The Pope’s inaugural event in Mongolia is scheduled for Saturday, during which he will address government leaders and the diplomatic corps. Mongolia’s ambassador to the Vatican, Gerelmaa Davaasuren, based in Geneva, emphasized that the Pope’s visit highlights Mongolia’s commitment to religious freedom and peaceful coexistence.
During his stay, Pope Francis is expected to participate in an inter-religious gathering on Sunday, where he will likely address several pressing issues, with environmental protection being one of them.
Mongolia stands as one of the nations most adversely affected by climate change, with average temperatures rising by over 2 degrees Celsius since 1940. The country has witnessed a decline in rainfall, leading to desertification and drought in around 75% of its land. Additionally, more than 200 small lakes have dried up since 1980. Overgrazing has compounded ecological problems, with approximately 80 million animals vying for resources on land suitable for only half that number, as per government data.
The exploration of mineral resources, considered a key driver of economic growth, has further strained Mongolia’s already limited water supplies. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, grapples with severe pollution, primarily stemming from coal burning.
On a promising note, Pope Francis announced his intention to release a new document on the protection of nature during his visit, building on his groundbreaking 2015 encyclical.
Tibetan Buddhism has seen a resurgence in Mongolia since the fall of the Soviet-backed Communist government in 1990, with the Dalai Lama emerging as its primary spiritual leader. However, China has exerted consistent pressure on Mongolia to prevent the 88-year-old exiled Tibetan leader from visiting, labeling him a dangerous separatist.
In addition to addressing the spiritual needs of the Catholic community, the visit shows the Pope’s commitment to addressing global issues, particularly climate change and environmental protection, in a world where these concerns transcend borders and belief systems.