The head of the 1.3-billion strong Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is on a four-day visit to Mongolia, which is a Buddhist-majority country with a population of 3 million plus and a tiny Roman Catholic community of 1,450. Pope Francis has landed in Ulaanbataar, the capital of Mongolia, where he will address Mongolia’s parliament and the political leadership. He will also be holding a religious service of the Roman Catholics and also with the representatives of the Mongolian Buddhists, Chinese Catholics, Russian Catholics, and Jews. The Pope wants to emphasise the importance of inter-religious co-existence and dialogue. It has been the plan of the Argentine-born Pope to visit smaller Roman Catholic communities in faraway places instead of visiting the prominent Catholic centres. More interesting than his visit to Mongolia is the impact the visit has on Mongolia’s two big neighbours, Russia and China. It was only after the fall of communism in Russia that Mongolia had in 1992 declared freedom of religion.
China has been having an indirect running battle with the Vatican, the official seat of Pope Francis, about the appointment of Catholic bishops and priests in China. China has appointed a Catholic bishop saying that Vatican cannot do it. But while crossing the Chinese airspace on his way to Mongolia, Pope Francis sent greetings to Chinese President Xi Jinping, a protocol followed by the Pope. He expressed good wishes for all the people of China and told Xi of his prayers for the “wellbeing of the nation”. The Chinese foreign office spokesman Wang Wenbin said the Pope’s message spoke of friendship and goodwill, and that China and Vatican maintained communications in recent years. He also said, “China is willing to continue to work with the opposite side to hold constructive dialogue, enhance understanding, build mutual trust and advance the process of improving relations between the two sides.”
The Chinese statement reflects the ambivalence in the Chinese stance towards the Vatican and the Roman Catholics and the Pope. But China wants to keep the communications channels between the two sides open. The Pope on his part is willing to reach out to the political leadership of other countries and build bridges of understanding to the extent it is possible in a spirit of universal amity. But he has also been speaking clearly about freedoms of the individual and the need to create understanding between peoples.
Relations of the Vatican with Russia have been tense as well. While the head of the Russian Orthodox Church has supported the Russian cause in the Ukraine war, the Pope has been speaking of peace and end to the war. Many in Ukraine are Roman Catholics.
Pope Francis has been sensitive to the different political stances of the governments in the world and also the existence of major religions of the world like Islam and Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. And he has been reaching out to create inter-religious dialogue. But in a world divided by national rivalries, he finds his job rather difficult. That is why his gesture of visiting Buddhist Mongolia to attend to the small Roman Catholic community in that country is a fine balancing act. He wants to support and encourage the Roman Catholics and at the same time he wants friendly ties with the followers of Buddhism and other religions. The Pope is also fighting many of the problems within the church, especially of child abuse, and the cruelty of the church towards native people in countries like Canada and other places. So, it is not an easy task for him to deal with internal challenges while reaching out to people of other faiths in a spirit of friendship.
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