On Friday morning, Pope Francis embarked on his inaugural journey through predominantly Buddhist Mongolia.
The visit is seen as a show of support to the 1,400 Catholics who reside there — one of the smallest and newest Catholic communities in the world — and an attempt to maintain a presence between China and Russia, both of which have strained relations with the Vatican.
The Catholic Church sanctioned a presence in Mongolia as recently as 1992 after the nation left behind its Soviet-allied communist government and adopted religious freedom.
“This is a clear effort of the Holy See to take care of Central Asia and not abandon it to Russia or China,” said Michel Chambon, a scholar of Catholicism in Asia.
Speaking about the need to experience Mongolia, the pope on Thursday said, “There are only a few inhabitants — a small people, but a big culture.
“I think it will do us good to try to understand this long, big silence, understand what it means but not intellectually, but with senses,” he said, adding, “Mongolia, you understand with your senses.”
Leaving Friday aside for rest, the pontiff’s itinerary for Saturday includes meetings with President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh and Prime Minister Luvsannamsrai Oyun-Erdene. He will also address authorities, diplomats and members of civil society in a speech.
Later on Saturday, he will meet the Catholic community at Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.
The 86-year-old pontiff arrived at Ulaanbaatar after an overnight flight passing through Chinese airspace.
Vatican protocol dictates that the pope is to send notes of greetings to the leader of whichever country he is flying over, giving Francis the opportunity to address Chinese President Xi Jinping.
He expressed “greetings of good wishes to your excellency and the people of China.”
“Assuring you of my prayers for the wellbeing of the nation, I invoke upon all of you the divine blessings of unity and peace,” Francis said.
The Vatican, last year, renewed a deal on the contentious issue of bishop appointments with China. It has also taken a clear stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine, blaming Moscow for the aggression, and sought to broker a deal between the two.