| 17 June 2024, Monday |

Pope wraps up Mongolia trip, says Church not bent on conversion

On Monday, Pope Francis concluded a historic journey to Mongolia, the main objective of which was to see the tiny Catholic community but which took on worldwide significance due to his overtures to China on religious freedom.

Francis concluded his five-day tour by inaugurating the House of Mercy, a multi-purpose edifice that will provide temporary health treatment to the most vulnerable people in Mongolia’s capital, as well as the homeless, victims of domestic violence, and migrants.

The House of Mercy, housed in a converted school and the idea of Mongolia’s leading Catholic clergyman, Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, is envisioned as a type of central charity coordinating the activities of Catholic missionary organizations and local volunteers.

“The true progress of a nation is not gauged by economic wealth, much less by investment in the illusory power of armaments, but by its ability to provide for the health, education and integral development of its people,” Francis said at the house.

He said he wanted to dispel “the myth” that the aim of Catholic institutions was to convert people to the religion “as if caring for others were a way of enticing people to ‘join up'”.

Mostly Buddhist Mongolia has only 1,450 Catholics in a population of 3.3 million and in an unprecedented event on Sunday, just about the entire Catholic population of the country was under the same roof with the pope.

On Monday, around two dozen Chinese Catholics surrounded the pope’s motorcade, attempting to receive his blessings.

The devotees, who identified themselves as Catholics from mainland China and wearing uniforms brandishing the phrase “Love Jesus”, crowded outside the House of Mercy charity centre.

As Francis’s motorcade departed the centre, they sang a Christian hymn dedicated to the pope in Mandarin, and attempted to dodge security and reach his car. One woman managed to get through security and received a blessing.

“I am just too happy, I can’t even control my emotions now,” said the woman, who would not give her name due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Mongolia was part of China until 1921 and the pope’s trip was dotted by allusions or appeals to the superpower next door, where the Vatican has scratchy relations with its ruling Communist Party.

At the end of Sunday’s Mass he sent greetings to China, calling its citizens a “noble” people and asking Catholics in China to be “good Christians and good citizens.”

On Saturday, in words that appeared to be aimed at China rather than Mongolia, Francis said governments have nothing to fear from the Catholic Church because it has no political agenda.

Beijing has been following a policy of “Sinicisation” of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party.

Although China’s constitution protects religious freedom, the government has increased restrictions on faiths considered as a threat to the party’s control in recent years.

The United States recognized China, Iran, and Russia, among others, as nations of particular concern under the Religious Freedom Act in December due to serious breaches.

A major 2018 deal between the Vatican and China on bishop nomination has been shaky at best, with the Vatican claiming that Beijing has repeatedly broken it.

The term used by the pope on Sunday – “good Christians and good citizens” – is one that the Vatican routinely used in attempting to persuade communist nations that granting more freedom to Catholics would only benefit their countries’ social and economic advancement.

  • Reuters