Pope Francis was given an exuberant welcome to Mongolia Friday on the first papal visit to the Asian nation, as he sent a message of "unity and peace" to neighbouring China in a bid to improve ties.
The 86-year-old pontiff's trip through Monday to the Buddhist-majority nation is a gesture of support for its tiny community of Catholics numbering about 1,400 -- but at the same time a strategic move to improve Vatican ties with Beijing and Moscow.
Francis arrived Friday morning local time following a nine-hour journey from Rome, greeted by a line of Mongolian honour guards in traditional blue, red and yellow attire upon his arrival, along with foreign minister Batmunkh Battsetseg.
He then headed to the home of Bishop Giorgio Marengo, the Church's youngest Cardinal, where children waving the flags of Mongolia and the Vatican chanted "Long live the pope!"
Local children sang songs about "Mongolian happiness" as they waited for the pope, with lyrics declaring "Mongolia is full of freedom, peace, joy and a bright future".
Sister Aleth Evangelista told AFP she and her fellow nuns felt "very blessed and fortunate to welcome the Pope in this country."
"Mongolia is a non-Christian country, most of the people are Buddhist and Shamanist, but the pope is here to foster peace and communion among all people," she said.
"I am quite excited that a worldly person like him would come to Mongolia, and it is a rare occasion," Khijigjargal Darisuren, a volunteer at the Saint Thomas church, said.
"I am very happy that we could meet him in person which is a rare treat for us."
The voyage is Francis' second to the region in a year after a September trip to Kazakhstan, underscoring the geopolitical importance of the sensitive area.
- 'Divine blessings' -
The pontiff told journalists aboard the papal plane that the vast, sparsely populated country of Mongolia was one that "can be understood with the senses."
Asked by a journalist whether he found diplomacy difficult, the pope answered: "Sometimes you need a sense of humour."
The visit -- Francis' 43rd voyage in his decade as head of the Catholic Church -- is also crucial in keeping the door open for improved Vatican ties with Beijing and Moscow, which have yet to offer the Pope an invitation.
The Holy See last year renewed a controversial deal with China on the thorny issue of bishop appointments, and Francis has sought to broker an end to the war in Ukraine with Russia.
As the plane passed over Chinese airspace, the pontiff, following custom, sent a telegram to President Xi Jinping, bearing "greetings of good wishes" to him and the Chinese people.
"Assuring you of my prayers for the well-being of the nation, I invoke upon all of you the divine blessings of unity and peace," he wrote.
Beijing said it was keen to "strengthen mutual trust" with the Vatican and that the pope's words "reflect friendship and goodwill".
China and the Holy See do not have official ties.
Beijing's Communist Party is officially atheist and exercises strict control over all recognised religious institutions, including vetting sermons and choosing bishops.
Francis led a years-long effort to build ties with Beijing and in 2018 the Holy See reached a secretive agreement allowing both sides a say in appointing bishops in China. The accord was renewed for two years in October.
- Stamina test -
The trip will also be a stamina test for the pope, who continues to travel widely despite undergoing a hernia operation in June and pain in his knee that has forced him to use a wheelchair.
After a day of rest, the pontiff's itinerary Saturday includes a welcome ceremony, meetings with President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh and Prime Minister Luvsannamsrai Oyun-Erdene, and a first address to authorities, diplomats and members of civil society.
The Jesuit pope will meet the Catholic community -- which includes just 25 priests and 33 nuns, only two of them Mongolian -- later Saturday in Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. Its circular nave resembles a "ger", the Mongolian nomads' traditional tent dwelling.
An interreligious meeting and a mass inside a newly built ice hockey arena are on the agenda for Sunday.
Pilgrims from nearby countries are expected at the mass, according to the Vatican, including from Russia, China, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan.