Pope Francis Tours Mongolia Amid Crackdown On Religious Minorities In China

A boy gives Pope Francis scarves as he arrives at the headquarters of the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Sept. 1, 2023. Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, the prefect, will host the pope at the prefecture during his four-day visit to the country. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis joined Mongolian shamans, Buddhist monks and a Russian Orthodox priest Sunday to highlight the role that religions can play in forging world peace, as he presided over an interfaith meeting.

Francis listened intently as a dozen faith leaders — Jewish, Muslim, Bahai, Hindu, Shinto and evangelical Christian among them — described their beliefs and their relationship with heaven.

Several said the traditional Mongolian ger, or round-shaped yurt, was a potent symbol of harmony with the divine — a warm place of family unity, open to the heavens, where strangers are welcome.

“The fact that we are meeting together in one place already sends a message: It shows that the religious traditions, for all their distinctiveness and diversity, have impressive potential for the benefit of society as a whole,” Francis said in remarks that cited Buddhist writings, Gandhi, his namesake St. Francis of Assisi and the existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. 

“If the leaders of nations were to choose the path of encounter and dialogue with others, it would be a decisive contribution to ending the conflicts continuing to afflict so many of the world’s peoples,” he said.

The interfaith event, held at a theater in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, came midway through Francis’ four-day visit to Mongolia, the first by a pope.

He is in Mongolia to minister to one of the world’s smallest and newest Catholic communities and highlight Mongolia’s tradition of tolerance in a region where the Holy See’s relations with neighboring China and Russia are often strained.

According to statistics by the Catholic nonprofit group Aid to the Church in Need, Mongolia is 53% Buddhist, 39% atheist, 3% Muslim, 3% Shaman and 2% Christian.

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Later Sunday, Francis presided over a Mass in the capital’s sports stadium attended by an estimated 2,000 people, including many Chinese pilgrims.

There, he kissed babies held up to him and sought to encourage Mongolia’s Catholic flock, telling them they know well the fatigue of the Biblical figure of Abraham, journeying through the desert.