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.
“May the great clear sky, which embraces the Mongolian land, illuminate new paths of fraternity,” he wrote.
Francis is visiting Mongolia to minister to its young Catholic community of 1,450 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 and remains the largest contiguous land empire in world history.
“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 said. “This model should be valued and re-proposed in our own day.”
Francis, 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.
Francis warned about the threat represented by today’s consumerist spirit and said religions can help guard against an “individualistic mindset that cares little for others and for sound, established traditions.”
“At the same time, they also represent a safeguard against the insidious threat of corruption, which effectively represents a serious menace to the development of any human community; 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.”
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.