Reflections on the Pope’s official visit to the land of eternal blue sky

Exactly a week ago, Pope Francis initiated the first official visit to Mongolia. Governmental officials stated that Pope’s visit contain historical and political significance as it is the first visit from the highest authority of the Vatican City. Mongolia, a landlocked nation situated between Russia and China, is going to be on the world spotlight this week. According to the several sources, thousands of Catholics across the world primarily from East and South-East Asia might come to Mongolia to heed his message and obtain his blessing.

From his five-day visit, Pope Francis met high-rankings officials such as President of Mongolia, U. Khurelsukh, started his brief ministership, participated inter-faith dialogue, and encouraged charity works. There are several questions circulating around the Pope’s visit: Why is it historically significant for Mongolia? What are the positive consequences for Mongolia and Vatican?  What is prospective relation between Mongolia and Vatican?

A brief historical outlook about the peculiar relations between Mongolia and Christianity

In the early period of Mongol Empire, Mongolia plateau was roamed by the various alliances of Turco-Mongol nomadic tribes. Various tribes worshipped different religions such as Buddhism, Tengrism and Christianity (in the form of Nestorian Christianity). Doctor G. Bayrjargal –who specializes in the Biblical science– expressed that Christianity was indeed widespread during the early years of the Mongol Empire. He also stated that several tribes such as Kereit, Uyghur, Naiman and Onghud were indeed Christian-oriented.  These tribes also played vital roles in the formation of the Mongol Empire and its later khanates. For instead, A Nestorian priest of Onghud descent named Markos served in the service of Ilkhanate and headed as the leader of the Church of the East. Mongol Khans would also marry Kereit or Khongoriat princess. Sorkhugtani Bekhi of Kereit Tribe, wife of Tolui and mother of Arghun Khan, Kublai Khan and Arigbukh Khan, was also a Nestorian Christian who lately influenced the politics of the Empire and its development via her sons. He also pointed out that Church in Medieval Mongolia used to have similar structure and hierarchy to Syriac Church. As of the relations between Vatican and Mongol Empire, diplomatic relations seemed rocky at first. However, a series of letters and emissaries were exchanged. These letters would imply demand of subjugation to Mongol Empire, persuasion to convert Catholic Christianity and military alliance against the Mamluk Sultanate and Muslim emirates. A few numbers of Catholic monks also opened its catholic churches in Mongol Empire due to its tolerance towards different religions. Doctor Bayrjargal also stated that a missionary named Giovanni obtained a license from a Christian official of Mongol origins, translated biblical texts into Mongolian and opened a church in Beijing. Famous traveler Marco Polo also served in the name of Kublai Khan to administer certain regions. Nevertheless, when the empire started to collapse into fragments of different khanates and kingdoms, the influence of the Christianity similarly started to wane. The relations between the Mongols and Christianity went into hiatus for hundreds of years. Thus, the historical remains, fragments and monuments were only left out of the Christianity in Mongolia until 1992.

Why Mongolia?

Mongolia used to be a part of the Qing Dynasty for approximately 220 years.  Following the 1911 and 1921 revolutions, Mongolia elapsed under the influence of Soviet Union for 70 years. Stretching from Altai Mountains to the Khalkin Gol, Mongolia is a perfect buffer state to deter any direct contact between Russia and China. For Russia, Mongolia is a barrier of containing direct influence of China from Russian Far East as it contains abundance of natural resources and geopolitical significance. For China, it also holds direct contact of Russia from its North-East region as it houses traditional industrial, manufacturing and agricultural facilities (Despite its stagnant growth due to privatization, ADB pointed out it has potential to develop). Unlike its neighboring states, Mongolia endorses democracy and free-market economy following the suit of the western ideal of development.  Despite its geographic isolation from the world and differing ideologies with its neighbors, Mongolia boasts active, flexible, and transparent foreign policy with the emphasis on its traditional two neighbors and countries it dearly names “third neighbors” (According to the official statement from Mongolian Ministry of Affairs, third neighbors are economically powerful and ideologically similar nations. These countries include the U.S, Japan, South Korea, India, Turkey, Germany, Canada, and Australia). Former Secretary of State John Kerry proudly dubbed this country as an “oasis of democracy” due to its ideological significance. U.N General Secretary Antonio Guterres also coined that Mongolia is a “symbol of peace.”  Professor D. Bayrkhuu expressed his enthusiasm in local interview that Pope’s visit would re-introduce Mongolia as a nation that upholds freedom of religions. During these turbulent times, His message about peace and goodness of the humanity would echo across the world.  

Speculations about Pope’s visit

Modern diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Mongolia started in 1992 when Mongolia fully embraced its democratic regime after the collapse of the socialist system. Many ordinary Mongolians managed to have right to worship different types and sects of religions. The taste of the freedom to worship boomed the interest in the different types of religions. Meanwhile, Christianity started to gain a strong foothold in Mongolia. In 2004, there were only 28 churches operating across the whole nation.  Yet, the number of churches has increased gradually after 19 years by numbering around 201 churches (as a result, Christian churches started overshadowing traditional Buddhist monasteries). Compared to other believers, the number of Catholics, however, is significantly lower (within the range of 1450 believers). There are several explanations about the Pope’s visit to Mongolia. Presses such as the AP, the Diplomat, ABC News and Reuters point out that Mongolia’s unique geographical position and its diplomatic stance of being active actor not disturbed by the webs of diplomatic maneuvers from great powers as a gateway to improve its strained relations with China and Russia and assert its interests.  But an article from the Vatican news emphasized that Pope’s visit is not linked to the geopolitical factors but rather religious and humanitarian factors. Professor J. Battur of International Relations from National University of Mongolia also said in a local news interview that there were no geopolitical motives because of the low number of the believers in Mongolia and Vatican’s neutral stance on global politics. Even if the Holy See intend to utilize this factor, it is unlikely that Mongolia would assist Vatican’s interest because it would not be keen to jeopardize its sole export destination (China is the top destination for Mongolian mineral resources).

Results of Pope’s visit to Mongolia

Around 1.3 billion of Catholics reside across the world. Relatively unknown to the world, Mongolia gained significant attention from the Catholic world for five days. Local news press indicated that Pope’s visit would elevate the image of Mongolia to millions of Catholics across the world. Some local experts speculated that it would boost its emerging tourist industry thanks to the influence of Pope’s visit. There was a hypothesis that around 10000 people might have arrived amidst the Pope’s visit to Mongolia. Countries such as South Korea and the Philippines are home to millions of Catholics. Plus, 10 million of Catholics reside in China. Despite Beijing’s tight control over religious affairs, some Chinese Catholics zealously and bravely visited Mongolia to behold their beloved figure.  As an “oasis of democracy”, Pope’s visit clearly strengthened Mongolia’s diplomatic stance and reputation in the world stage as thriving, young and developing democratic nation. While he was addressing at the masses in Ulaanbaatar, He remarked positively about Mongolia’s third neighbor policy. To quote from his address: “We can say that your land has two great powers — Russia and China — and for this reason, your mysticism is to try and dialogue with the ‘third neighbor,’ without disrespect for these two with whom you have good relations.” Pope’s remark about Mongolia highlights one significant aspect: Mongolia could be staging ground for thawing frozen relations between China and the Vatican.  Before Pope’s visit, Mongolia was considered to be a suitable location for 2018 the US-North Korean head of states’ meeting.  Therefore, Pope’s visit illustrates a hidden potential that Mongolia could host prospective and significant summits and conferences that may shape the history of the world. Lastly, His Holiness visit would also pave numerous opportunities for humanitarian, cultural and religious co-operations in Mongolia.

Concluding thoughts

Pope’s visit was a historical and symbolic event for Mongolia. Albeit the number of the believers, Pope Francis emphasized on the spirituality and co-existence of the different cultures. As of Mongolia, public sentiment regarding the Pope’s visit was overwhelmingly positive as people jokingly refer that Pope’s visit is finally happening after the hundreds of years following Guyug Khan’s invitation. Hundreds of years ago, everything was about religious conversion, subjugation, and war. Even though world is ushered into relatively peaceful, The Pope revitalized the inbounded faith in the goodness of humanity through his visit to Mongolia. Alas, Pope’s blessing might have a road for bringing peace to the world.

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