ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — Pope Francis on Saturday praised Mongolia’s tradition of religious freedom dating to the times of its founder, Genghis Khan, as he opened the first-ever papal visit to the Asian nation with a plea for peace and an end to the “insidious threat of corruption.”
Francis met with President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh inside a traditional Mongolian ger, or round yurt, set up inside the state palace, and wrote a message in the guest book that he was visiting Mongolia, “a country young and ancient, modern and rich of tradition,” as a pilgrim of peace.
Francis is visiting Mongolia to minister to its tiny Catholic community of 1,450 people and make a diplomatic foray into a region where the Holy See has long had troubled relations, with Russia to the north and China to the south.
While Christianity has been present in the region for hundreds of years, the Catholic Church has only had a sanctioned presence in Mongolia since 1992, after the country abandoned its Soviet-allied communist government and enshrined religious freedom in its constitution.
In his remarks, Francis praised Mongolia’s tradition of religious liberty, noting that such tolerance existed even during the period of the Mongol Empire’s vast expansion over much of the world. At its height, the empire stretched as far west as Hungary to become the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Nowadays, the landlocked nation sandwiched between Russia and China is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with traditional links to Tibet’s leading lamas, including the Dalai Lama.
“The fact that the empire could embrace such distant and varied lands over the centuries bears witness to the remarkable ability of your ancestors to acknowledge the outstanding qualities of the peoples present in its immense territory and to put those qualities at the service of a common development,” Francis told the president, diplomats and cultural leaders in remarks at the state palace.
“This model should be valued and re-proposed in our own day,” he said.
Referring to the 13th-century period of relative political stability within the Mongol Empire that allowed trade and travel to flourish, Francis called for such a period of fraternity and peace to take root today.
“May heaven grant that today, on this earth devastated by countless conflicts, there be a renewal, respectful of international laws, of the condition of what was once the pax mongolica, that is the absence of conflicts,” he said.
Khurelsukh also referred to the “pax mongolica" in his remarks, saying that same spirit still guides Mongolia's efforts to be a peaceful, multilateral player on the world stage.
“Achievements of pax mongolica have created the solid grounds for the development of mutual respect between different nations of the world, cherishing each other's values and identities, enabling peaceful coexistence of various civilizations,” he said.
Francis noted that he was giving the president an authenticated copy of the letter that the then-ruler of the Mongol Empire, Guyuk Khan, wrote to Pope Innocent IV in 1246 after the pontiff sent emissaries east seeking to understand the intentions of the vastly advancing empire.
According to a translated copy of the letter reproduced in the 1955 book “The Mongol Mission,” Guyuk indicated he didn’t understand the pope’s request that he convert to Christianity and insisted that God was on his side, commanding his troops to conquer.
“Though thou likewise sayest that I should become a trembling Nestorian Christian, worship God and be an ascetic, how knowest thou whom God absolves, in truth to whom He shows mercy?” he wrote, according to the translation. “From the rising of the sun to its setting, all the lands have been made subject to me. Who could do this contrary to the command of God?”
In his remarks, Francis also praised Mongolia’s efforts to care for the environment. The vast, landlocked country, historically afflicted by weather extremes, is considered to be one of the countries most affected by climate change. The country has already experienced a 2.1-degree Celsius (3.8-degree Fahrenheit) increase in average temperatures over the past 70 years, and an estimated 77% of its land is degraded because of overgrazing and climate change, according to the United Nations Development Program.
Mongolia is set to host the 2026 U.N. conference on desertification and has launched a campaign to plant 1 billion trees across its vast steppes and mountains of grasslands.
“You help us to appreciate and carefully cultivate what we Christians consider to be God’s creation, the fruit of his benevolent design, and to combat the effects of human devastation by a culture of care and foresight reflected in responsible ecological policies,” Francis said.
The pope, however, noted the need to combat corruption, an apparent reference to a scandal over Mongolia’s trade with China over the alleged theft of 385,000 tons of coal. In December, hundreds of people braved freezing cold temperatures in the capital to protest the scandal.
"Corruption is the fruit of a utilitarian and unscrupulous mentality that has impoverished whole countries,” he said. “It is a sign of a vision that fails to look up to the sky and flees the vast horizons of fraternity, becoming instead self-enclosed and concerned with its own interests alone.”
He said religions in particular can represent a safeguard against the “insidious threat of corruption, which effectively represents a serious menace to the development of any human community.”
The Mongolian government has declared 2023 to be an “anti-corruption year” and says it is carrying out a five-part plan based on Transparency International, the global anti-graft watchdog that ranked Mongolia 116th last year in its corruption perceptions index.
Later Saturday, Francis was to meet with the priests and missionaries who tend to the country's tiny Catholic community at the capital’s St. Peter and Paul Cathedral.
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