14.06.2023 Author: Boris Kushhov

A formal visit: What is the Pope seeking in Mongolia?

A formal visit: What is the Pope seeking in Mongolia?

Recently it became known that the Pope will pay an official visit to Mongolia this year. The statement following the meeting of the Secretary of the Holy See for Foreign Affairs with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia even mentioned the exact date of the visit – from August 31 to September 4, which indicates the intensity of his program. This is a state visit – the Pontiff was invited by the President of Mongolia Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh. However, it is wrong to assume that the idea of the visit entirely belonged to the Mongolian side – back in February, the Pope himself mentioned Mongolia among the countries he would like to visit during the year.

Pope Francis stands out significantly from among the previous holders of his office. He is the first Pontiff from the New World (an Argentinian of Italian origin), the first Jesuit Pope. A distinctive feature of Francis and his policy is also the increased attention to Asia, including East Asia. Since his appointment in 2013, he has visited such non-traditional pontifical countries as Sri Lanka (2015), Myanmar and Bangladesh (2017), the UAE (2019), Iraq (2021), Bahrain and Kazakhstan (2022). India was also mentioned in the Pope’s travel plans for 2024. Earlier, Francis even stated his desire to visit the DPRK. Now it is known that the Pope is going to Mongolia.

The history of relations between Mongolia and the Holy See dates back almost eight centuries. The first contacts of the parties are connected with the activities of the monk Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, sent by Pontiff Innocent IV in the status of papal legate to the Mongol Khan in 1245. This mission was followed by a brief and fruitless correspondence between the Pope and the Mongol Khan Güyük in 1246.

Earlier, one of previous NEO articles cited brief description of the position of Catholicism in the country. Despite a significant increase in the number of missions and parishioners, no more than 1,500 Mongolian citizens still identify as Catholics. The total number of the community is so insignificant that it does not even fall into the hundred largest in the world (if one localizes the communities within the borders of modern states). In this regard, it can be concluded that this visit is very unusual, and its goals are far from obvious. Of course, “the West” is implementing an active and long–term program of ideological “Westernization” of the country in Mongolia, including by creating a network of religious organizations on its territory. The Pope’s visit will indirectly help strengthen the positions of Catholic missions in the country and give impetus to the expansion of the Catholic community in Mongolia. But for the Holy See itself, this is too insignificant a goal, hardly worthy of a direct visit by the Pontiff. Then what exactly brought Mongolia and the Holy See together – so unexpectedly and at such a high level?

The official statement of the press office of the President of Mongolia says that the head of state and the Pontiff will discuss prospects for expanding bilateral cooperation, participate in events dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and the Holy See, and (most curiously) discuss some important issues related to international relations. It is the third item on the still vague agenda of the visit that appears to be the most significant.

Pope Francis is known all over the world for his exceptional attention to the Ukrainian crisis. He is the author a number of statements well-known and widely discussed in Russia, the West and Ukraine. His attempts to hold official talks on the crisis with the President of Russia are well-known in the world community. Francis has repeatedly offered his services as an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine. He discussed the prospects of his participation in such negotiations during the visit of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy to the Vatican (although his initiative was met with a refusal). It is difficult to overestimate the attention of the Holy See to the crisis in Ukraine – even on the homepage of the website of L’Osservatore Romano, a daily newspaper published in the Vatican, the following words are printed in large characters: “In a world divided by war and conflict, the Spirit brings harmony, peace and unity”, discreetly referring to the well-known international problematic.

In the same context, Mongolia stands out on the global political landscape for its consistent neutral policy towards the conflict, which persists even despite numerous attempts by the country’s Western partners to force it to steer towards Ukraine. One should not ignore the ideas about Mongolia as a promising mediator between Russia and Ukraine that have repeatedly appeared at the level of mass media and public figures.

Judging by the overlap of these characteristics of the policy of the Vatican and Mongolia, it appears that the problematics of the Ukrainian crisis will be an important place on the agenda of the Pontiff’s visit to Mongolia. At the same time, it is quite difficult to say for sure from which angle it will be viewed. While Mongolia’s position on the conflict remains impartial and clear, the official statements of Pope Francis are characterized by their uncertainty. Despite the Pontiff’s rather stable stance on the need to resolve the conflict and establish a long-term peace, contradictory statements about the role of Russia and NATO in this crisis have been often traced in his speeches.

Probably, Western politicians are trying to turn the Pope’s Authority in the world community (the head of the largest religious community in the world) to their advantage and utilize him as a loyal “leader of public opinion”. For this reason, his person most likely becomes the object of increased political pressure, which leads to the presence of contradictory statements by Francis. Should we exclude the possibility that the Pope is going to Mongolia, including to persuade Mongolia to side with Ukraine and the West on a sensitive political issue for it?

Despite this, another option should not be written off as well. The Pope and his support for Mongolia’s commitment to the peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, as well as his solidarity with the neutral and unbiased position of the country, can be used by the Mongolian authorities as an additional (and very weighty) argument in support of its neutrality, which can be used in the international stage – including against Western leaders who consistently provoke Mongolia to “associate” with them. If Western pressure on the Pontiff does not prevail, such a scenario can be considered the most likely. Francis himself has repeatedly tried to establish a dialogue with potential mediators in the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis – for example, it is known about his failed attempt to meet with the President of the People’’s Republic of China, about his repeated participation in interfaith events and forums – in particular, in the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for human coexistence, as well as at the 7 th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan, at which he directly or indirectly mentioned the importance of ensuring negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

Thus, the political message of the visit will almost certainly prevail over the religious one. Despite the consistent expansion of the ideological and religious activities of Catholics in Mongolia, its support can hardly be the main purpose of this visit. But its political significance can be very tangible – depending on the degree of pressure from Western political circles on the Pope.  He can discuss with the President of Mongolia either the prospects of the country joining the condemnation of Russia, or approve its neutral and biased position, and perhaps even add weight to any official proposals of Mongolia on mediation, the future appearance of which has been repeatedly predicted in the national media and public space.


Boris Kushkhov, the Department for Korea and Mongolia at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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