Former Mongolian President: Pope Francis’ August Visit Will Be ‘Testimony to His Vision’ for World Peace
The Holy Father will be the first pope to visit the democratic country surrounded by its two big neighbors, China and Russia.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for style and clarity.
ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — Pope Francis’ visit to Mongolia, the first ever by a pope, will be an “important and historic” apostolic journey in the context of Catholic-Mongol relations that date back to the time of Genghis Khan’s grandson, a former President of Mongolia has told the Register.
Nambaryn Enkhbayar, who served as Mongolia’s president from 2005 to 2009, says the Holy Father will be visiting the Buddhist-majority nation as it continues to embrace religious pluralism in the context of democratic reforms that began in the 1990s — “continuing the tradition established in the Great Mongolian Empire more than 800 years ago, when different religions coexisted peacefully.”
Enkhbayar predicts in this June 17 email interview with Register senior correspondent Edward Pentin that Pope Francis’ visit will be a “testimony of his vision” for world peace, and although he notes its geopolitical significance due to Mongolia’s location between China and Russia, Enkhbayar does not foresee an added stop in China, an apostolic journey Francis has long wished to make.
The former Mongolian president, who is a Buddhist, begins by recalling the first mission to the Mongols, carried out by Italian Franciscan Father John of Plano Carpini on behalf of Pope Innocent IV. Following the great Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe in the 13th century, the mission was aimed at protesting against their invasion of Christian territory and to gather information about their military and plans.
Enkhbayar was also Mongolia’s prime minister from 2000 to 2004, and speaker of its Parliament from 2004 to 2005. He is the first person to have held all of the top three positions in the Mongolian government.
President Enkhbayar, what is the historical significance of the visit and how important is it for the Mongolian people?
A visit of the Roman Pope Francis to Mongolia, which was officially announced by both sides, is going to be an important and historic one. The history of relations between the Mongolian state and the Roman Catholic Church goes back many centuries.
The Italian Franciscan John of Plano Carpini (1185-1252), the envoy of Pope Innocent IV, made a long and dangerous trip to the city of Kharakhorum, the capital city of the Great Mongolian Empire, to deliver an official letter from the Pope to the Supreme Khaan Güyük [the third Khagan-Emperor of the Mongol Empire and grandson of Genghis Khan]. He was received by the Supreme Khaan Güyük himself in Kharakhorum city and, later on, returned back to deliver a letter from Güyük Khaan to Pope Innocent IV.
Father Plano Carpini composed the Ystoria Mongalorum, a detailed account of his mission to the court of the Mongolian Supreme Khaan, which became an important source of information on the Mongolian Great Empire, founded and created earlier by Chinggis [Genghis] Khaan himself.
A visit of Pope Francis to Mongolia is going to be the first-ever visit by a pope himself to Mongolia, a democratic country, surrounded by its two big neighbors, China and Russia.
Pope Francis told the Mongolian delegation, which brought him the official invitation of Mr. U. Khurelsukh, the incumbent president of Mongolia, to visit Mongolia, that he would go to Mongolia not on the way to or on the way back from another country, but as a destination of its own importance.
What is the current significance of the Pope’s visit to your country?
Pope Francis will pay an official visit to Mongolia in his capacity as the head of the state of Vatican and as the Head of the Catholic Church. Mongolia and the Vatican have been celebrating the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations, which was concluded as far as back as 1992.
In 2022, Pope Francis made Italian Consolata missionary and apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Giorgio Marengo, a cardinal. Marengo leads the Catholic Church in Mongolia with an estimated 1,300 Catholics out of a total population of about 3.34 million. He speaks fluent Mongolian, a difficult language, which he mastered while living in Mongolia for more than 15 years, mainly in the rural area of the country.
The Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, visited the East Asian nation from June 4-6.
Mongolia is a country where the majority of the people are considered to be Buddhists. Since the democratic changes started in this country in the beginning of 1990s other different religions, including Christianity, became practiced by some ordinary citizens of Mongolia both in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, as well as in the countryside. Kazakhs, an ethnic minority in Mongolia, enjoy practicing Islam. In this sense, contemporary Mongolia is continuing the tradition established in the Great Mongolian Empire more than 800 years ago, when different religions coexisted peacefully.
What are your expectations for the visit?
Pope Francis is well-known for his special attention to the lives of the peoples of small countries. He is expected to deliver an important message on the current situation in the world, the mission the small countries have in it, on the urgency of establishing peace in places where innocent children, women, elderly people are killed in large numbers, and millions of the families are separated for no reason. The visit by Pope Francis to Mongolia will be another testimony of his vision — that everyone, every country should be counted on to make the world a peaceful place, where good dreams come true.
It is expected that the visit of Pope Francis to Mongolia will attract the attention of the millions of the peoples in different countries of the world, and thousands of Catholics from nearby countries will visit Mongolia to witness this historic visit. The historic visit of Pope Francis coincides with the fact, that the Mongolian government declared the year 2023 “Visit Mongolia Year.”
Do you think, or have you heard, that his visit might incorporate a visit to China?
Until now, there has been no real news or signs that Pope Francis’ visit to Mongolia might incorporate a possible visit to China. It is a separate issue of its own importance and significance. Let us be reminded of the words by Pope Francis himself: that he would visit Mongolia not on the way to, or on the way back, from another country, but as a destination of its own importance.