A few Chinese Catholics came to see Pope Francis at an official welcoming ceremony in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar’s main plaza on Saturday, proudly waving their country’s flag.
The Vatican does not have diplomatic relations with China, instead recognizing Chinese-claimed Taiwan, and Catholics in China have long been divided between a state-backed official church and an underground flock loyal to the pope.
Two dozen Chinese nationals who described themselves as Catholic enthusiasts clustered near a police barricade on Saturday morning, waving red, five-star Chinese flags.
Yang Guang, a 37-year-old Catholic from Shanghai, said he came to Mongolia for a holiday but was glad to catch a glimpse of the pope at Sukhbaatar Square.
“I’m just extremely happy because this is the first time I’ve seen him. It’s not as if I have this kind of opportunity all the time. I’m just very happy. Passion,” Yang told Reuters.
A few other Chinese nationals could be seen receiving blessings from a cardinal on the sidelines of ceremony.
Suzanne Willis, a Christian pilgrim from Hong Kong, said she was moved to tears seeing Francis in person.
“I was just so overwhelmed. I see this very, very nice person that I’ve admired for a long, long time,” said Willis, adding that her group happened upon the ceremony after their flight back to Hong Kong was delayed due to a typhoon.
Mongolia, with its population of about 3.3 million people, is strategically significant for the Roman Catholic Church because of its proximity to China, where the Vatican is trying to improve the situation of Catholics.
Francis, 86, arrived in Mongolia on Friday to visit the country’s tiny Catholic community, which at 1,450 members is one of the smallest in the world.
As is customary, Francis, who besides being the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics is also a head of state, wired greetings to the leaders of each country he flew over, including China.
In his message to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Francis said he had good wishes for all the people of China and assured the president of his prayers for the “wellbeing of the nation”.