Far-reaching implications of Pope Francis’ visit to ‘island of religious freedom’ Mongolia

Far-reaching implications of Pope Francis’ visit to ‘island of religious freedom’ Mongolia
In a message seen as largely directed at China, Pope Francis said "governments and secular institutions have nothing to fear from the Church’s work of evangelisation, for she has no political agenda to advance". / News feed, screenshot.
By Antonio Graceffo in Ulaanbaatar September 6, 2023

His Holiness the Pope’s September four-day visit to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia was an inspiration to Mongolia’s tiny Catholic community, as well as proof of the religious freedom the country’s citizens enjoy. The social and geopolitical implications of Pope Francis’ visit are far-reaching, extending to Russia and China, but also to Ukraine, Vietnam and Taiwan.

The Catholic Church in Mongolia enjoys good relations with the government. To welcome the Pope, the government arranged events such as a parade of men on horseback dressed as Mongol warriors and performances by children’s choirs. Pope Francis even met with  Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh in a ceremonial ger (yurt) at State House.

During a speech in Ulaanbaatar, Francis, who began his Papacy in March 2013 at the age of 76, referenced the first contact between the Catholic Church and Mongolia. During the 13th century, an emissary dispatched by Pope Innocent IV was sent to the ruler of the Mongol Empire, Guyuk Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. Just across from Sukhbaatar Square, where State House is located, sits a statue of Marco Polo, who lived in the court of Kublai Khan. Kublai, who was very curious about Christianity, asked Marco Polo take a letter to the Pope, requesting that missionaries be sent to his capital.

Father Jay Mark Gutierrez of St Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Ulaanbaatar explained the importance of the Pope’s arrival. “The visit of the Holy Father in Mongolia means a lot to the Mongolian faithful. It is a nourishment to the young faith of the Mongolian people.”

The Catholic Church was first established in modern Mongolia in 1922. During the nearly seven decades that Mongolia was a Soviet satellite, the Church was, however, unable to operate in the country. Almost immediately after Mongolia gained independence and peacefully transitioned to democracy, the Church returned, in 1992. For this reason, the Catholic Church in Mongolia is considered young.

“We might think that we are too few and too remote that the Holy Father might not think about us,” said Father Jay Mark. “We have only 1,300 Mongolian baptised Catholics [nationwide], and even fewer who participate actively in the Church. But even given these realities he still accepted to come here… Letting us know that no one is left behind in the Catholic Church.”

The People’s Republic of China did not allow an official Chinese delegation to journey to Mongolia for the apostolic visit, which concluded on September 4, but a small group of Chinese lay people did manage to attend as did priests from Hong Kong. During his speech, the Pope—whose motto is “Miserando atque eligendo”, or “Having mercy, He called him”—sent a message to China, where it is estimated that there may be as many as 100 million Christians, most of whom worship in secret. "I want to take the opportunity of their [the Chinese attendees] presence to send a warm greeting to the noble Chinese people," said Francis.

Mongolia is the only country in the region with real religious freedom. In Russia, the Catholic Church has always suffered varying degrees of repression in the face of the state-backed Russian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to the Kremlin. Since the Vatican’s condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the repression of Catholics in Russia has intensified. It is now extremely difficult for foreign priests and nuns to obtain work permits and remain in the country. The resulting shortage of clergy may force a number of dioceses to close. As a result, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has identified Russia as one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.

In Mongolia’s other neighbour, the PRC, the situation is even worse. Although Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for “freedom of religious belief,” only “normal” beliefs are protected. And the Communist Party of China (CCP) gets to decide what is normal. Religious adherents must select from only five approved religions: those promulgated by the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant) and the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The five state-approved religions are overseen by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, an organ of the United Front Work Department, the CCP’s propaganda arm.

Article 36 also states that “Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.” For this reason, the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) is not allowed to recognise His Holiness, the Pope. What’s more, the CPA and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, demand that liturgy and church teachings be tailored to make people “fervently love the socialist motherland.”

In Mongolia, not only can the Catholics recognise the primacy of the Pope, the Vatican is permitted to oversee the appointment of bishops and cardinals. In 2022, forty-seven-year-old Bishop Giorgio Marengo, who had served the Mongolian Catholic Church for over 20 years, was selected to join the College of Cardinals, making him the youngest cardinal in the world. In China, however, the Communist Party appoints bishops and cardinals. For obvious reasons, this has always put a strain on Sino-Vatican relations. Currently, the Holy See, the Vatican State, recognises the Republic of China (Taiwan), rather than the PRC on mainland China.

Among the throngs of people who travelled to Ulaanbaatar to welcome His Holiness, were a number of Vietnamese. The situation for Catholics in Vietnam is very different from the situation in China, although both countries are communist. Catholics make up about 7% of the population of Vietnam. In spite of officially promoting state atheism, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has been in discussions with the Vatican for years.

A Vatican delegation has visited the country each year, for more than two decades, and a group of Vietnamese parliamentarians visited the Pope in Rome. On his way back from Mongolia, Pope Francis told reporters "I am very positive about the relationship with Vietnam; good work has been going on for years.” Hanoi allows its citizens to recognise the Pope. Consequently, the Catholic Church in Vietnam is part of the worldwide Catholic Church, and its bishops are in communion with the Vatican. Vietnamese Catholics in Ulaanbaatar asked His Holiness when he would visit Vietnam. He promised that either he or his successor definitely would.

On the one hand, the situation in Vietnam gives hope that one day, the government of China might follow a similar path, opening relations with the Vatican. On the other hand, there have been fears, particularly among Taiwanese, that Beijing might offer a deal, allowing communion with the Vatican in exchange for the Holy See switching its recognition to the PRC. Currently, Taiwan is only recognised by 13 countries. Losing the recognition of the Holy See would be a tremendous diplomatic setback.

In 2018, it looked as if the Vatican and Beijing were finding a compromise when the communist government agreed to consult with His Holiness when appointing bishops. The deal was criticised by many Catholics, and intensified feelings of insecurity in Taiwan. In April of 2022, Beijing violated the agreement by unilaterally appointing the Catholic bishop of Shanghai without consulting with the Vatican. In September of that year, Pope Francis’s visit to Kazakhstan coincided with Xi Jinping’s visit to the Central Asian country, but the Chinese leader nevertheless refused to meet with His Holiness. It seems that relations between Beijing and the Vatican are still troubled.

During the Kazakhstan trip, the Pope led an interfaith conference, which was attended by clerics of various religions from 50 countries, but the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill declined to attend. 

In spite of his condemnation of the war in Ukraine and his hope for greater religious freedom in China and closer ties with Vietnam, Pope Francis made it clear during his time in Mongolia that the Church is apolitical. "For this reason, governments and secular institutions have nothing to fear from the Church’s work of evangelisation, for she 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,” he said.

Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA, is an economist and China analyst. He has spent over 20 years living in Asia, including seven years in China, two and a half in Taiwan and three in Mongolia. He conducted post-doctoral studies in international trade at the School of Economics, Shanghai University, and holds a PhD. from Shanghai University of Sport, and a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Antonio is the author of seven books about Asia, with a focus on the Chinese economy.