Pope visit shines light on Mongolia's small but vibrant Catholic community

Well-wishers wave Vatican and Mongolia flags to welcome Pope Francis in Ulaanbaatar (Pedro PARDO)
Well-wishers wave Vatican and Mongolia flags to welcome Pope Francis in Ulaanbaatar (Pedro PARDO)

Local faithful in Mongolia are hoping a historic visit by Pope Francis to the Buddhist-majority nation this week will shine a light on the country's small but vibrant Catholic community.

Religion was suppressed during Mongolia's communist period, which ended in 1990. Two years later, the country established formal ties with the Vatican.

The vast Asian nation is now home to 1,400 Catholics -- a tiny community who say they never expected the pope to visit.

"We have never dreamed... that the Holy Father will visit Mongolia, a country with a very small Catholic community," Paul Leung, a priest from Hong Kong who has worked in Mongolia for 17 years, told AFP.

"Many people do not even know where is Mongolia or what is Mongolia," he said.

"But now our Holy Father chose to visit us, I really feel that it is a special grace from God."

He was tired from the busy preparations, he said, but "very excited".

Otgontsetseg Dash-Onolt, speaking to AFP from her home, said it was a "proud moment", especially given the pope's recent health issues.

"The Holy Father is visiting in the remote country after his surgery," she said.

"This means he is coming to us to prove that we are one united brothers and sisters."

Her retired husband, Khurts Lhamsuren, said that the church makes him feel "much younger".

"It's nice to share and help each other," he explained.

"God means love."

In downtown Ulaanbaatar, a banner hailing the occasion of the pope's visit adorned the front of a cathedral, depicting Francis flanked by two children in traditional dress with a background of Mongolia's grass steppes.

This small community is also home to Giorgio Marengo, who at 49 years old is the youngest member of the College of Cardinals.

He is a vocal advocate for dialogue with the country's Buddhists -- drawing parallels between that religion's founder, also known as Siddhartha Gautama, and Jesus Christ as two "peacemakers".

Earlier in the week, at the Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, the faithful gathered for a small mass as local kids kicked balls noisily nearby.

- 'God is love' -

Sangaajav Tserenkhand, a local priest, told AFP he had converted from Buddhism after meeting Catholic charity workers.

"I asked my Father Kim why are you doing this? He pointed to the cross and said I came to Mongolia because Jesus told me to help Mongolians," Tserenkhand said, standing in a church and donning a black robe and white clerical collar.

"His answer truly moved me and opened my heart," he said.

"I realised God is real and I want to be the tool of God to deliver love if he lets me."

Outside Marengo's home on Friday, as the faithful gathered to greet the pontiff, locals chanted "Long live the pope!"

"I do attend church regularly but I haven't been baptised," Khijigjargal Darisuren, a volunteer at Saint Thomas Aquinas Church, told AFP.

"I am quite excited that a worldly person like him would come to Mongolia," she said.

"It is a rare occasion and I am very happy."