Pope Francis hailed religion’s power to resolve conflict and promote peace Sunday, on his final full day in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar for a visit that has seen him seek to build bridges with neighboring China.
The morning address, which brought together leaders of major religions in Mongolia, took place in the intimate Hun Theatre, nestled in the low mountains surrounding the city and designed in the round shape of the nomadic “ger” dwelling.
Christian leaders, as well as representatives of Buddhism and Shamanism, Islam and Judaism, Hinduism, the Russian Orthodox Church, Mormonism, Baha’i, and others, attended.
“Religious traditions, for all their distinctiveness and diversity, have impressive potential for the benefit of society as a whole,” the 86-year-old pontiff told them.
“If the leaders of nations were to choose the path of dialogue with others,” he said, it could make a “decisive contribution to ending the conflicts continuing to afflict so many of the world’s people”.
The pope’s visit to Mongolia — a young democracy with a constitution protecting religious freedom — has seen him send a tacit message to the nation’s neighbors, in particular officially atheist China, that spirituality is not a threat.
By venturing to the isolated Central Asian country, the Argentine Jesuit has hoped not only to encourage the tiny Catholic community of missionaries and the faithful but use his presence at China’s backdoor to improve the Vatican’s relations with Beijing.
During a gathering of Catholic missionaries at the city’s Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral on Saturday, Pope Francis said governments had “nothing to fear” from the Catholic Church.
“Governments and secular institutions have nothing to fear from the Church’s work of evangelization, for she has no political agenda to advance,” said the pontiff, without specifically mentioning China.
Beijing’s Communist Party, which exercises strict control over religious institutions, is wary of the Catholic Church on its territory.
The Holy See renewed a deal last year with Beijing allowing both sides a say in appointing bishops in China.
Critics have called the move a dangerous concession in exchange for a presence in the country.
Asked about the pope’s apparent overtures to Beijing, Hong Kong Bishop Stephen Chow told AFP in Ulaanbaatar that the pontiff’s message was “for the whole world”.
“The Church now… really (has) no intentions to become political and that’s important to us,” he said.
“Otherwise we lose our credit as an institution talking about love and truth.”
‘Pilgrim of friendship’-
Calling himself a “pilgrim of friendship”, Pope Francis extolled Mongolia’s virtues during his visit, including its nomadic people “respectful of the delicate balances of the ecosystem”.
He said Mongolia’s Shamanist and Buddhist traditions of living in harmony with nature could help in the “urgent and no longer deferrable efforts to protect and preserve planet Earth”.
Religions, when not “corrupted” by sectarian deviations, help create sound societies, he said.
They “represent a safeguard against the insidious threat of corruption, which effectively represents a serious menace to the development of any human community”.
Mongolia has been marred by corruption and environmental degradation in recent years, with its capital suffering from some of the world’s worst air quality and an embezzlement scandal sparking street protests last year.
Vast swathes of the country are also at risk of desertification due to climate change, overgrazing, and mining.
On Sunday, the pope reiterated his call for greater protection of the environment.
“Concerned only with earthly interests, humanity ends up destroying the Earth and mistaking progress for regression,” the pontiff told religious leaders.
This was “attested by so many injustices, conflicts, persecutions, environmental disasters and great disregard for human life”, he said.
There are about 1,400 Catholics in Mongolia out of a population of 3.3 million people. Only 25 are priests, and just two of those are Mongolian.
Buddhism and Shamanism are the main religions followed in Mongolia.
Still, in the vast Sukhbaatar Plaza, named after a Mongol revolutionary hero, many had hoped to catch a glimpse of the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.
“We waited for this moment for many years,” one local Catholic told AFP.
Pope Francis’ trip also drew pilgrims from the wider region, including Chinese Catholics, some of whom waved the country’s red flag as they waited.
Some told AFP they were hopeful of a papal visit to China one day.
The pope will also preside over mass inside a newly built ice hockey arena on Sunday.