Pope Francis’ Eastern Mission: His Influence and the Consequences for the Central Asian Region
ANALYSIS: The Pope’s presence represents a rare opportunity for interreligious dialogue and reaching the peripheries.
Central Asia may not garner the same level of global attention as other strategically significant or economically powerful regions, but it has captured the interest of a notable figure: Pope Francis. His trip to Mongolia, today through Monday, marks his second visit to the region in the past year.
However, Pope Francis’ interest is not without competition. There are heavyweights like China, Russia, the Gulf States and the United States. These global powers are all casting their strategic gaze on this expansive territory, which is nearly as vast as the continent of Australia and lies at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
For China, a major attraction is the opportunity to establish a new trade corridor, effectively reviving the historic Silk Road and connecting the East with the West. Meanwhile, EU countries are actively investing in the energy sector in the region, Russia is engaged in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Gulf countries are channeling hundreds of millions of dollars into the construction of new mosques, religious and cultural centers for Islam.
In the face of these significant players, Pope Francis’ presence may appear modest, but it represents a rare opportunity for interreligious dialogue and reaching the peripheries. These seemingly small and unassuming efforts, however, carry immense hope for the small Catholic community in the region.
The Significance of the Pope’s Return Visit to the Central Asian Region
“His Holiness Pope Francis' interest is not geopolitical,” remarked Bishop José Luis Mumbiela, head of the two-year-old Bishops’ Conference of Central Asia, discussing the Holy Father's second visit to the region with the Register.
These visits, initially to Kazakhstan and now to Mongolia, primarily reflect the Church's engagement with the periphery and interreligious dialogue. The Kazakhstan visit included participation in the Congress of the Leaders of the World and Traditional Religions, while the Mongolia pilgrimage will strengthen dialogue with Buddhists.
“The Pope’s presence holds significance, as neighboring countries recognize the elevated prestige when he visits, spurring them to pursue official relationships," Bishop Mumbiela added.
Bishop Jerzy Maculewicz, who has served as Uzbekistan’s first apostolic administrator since 2005, shared that about 100 Uzbeki people traveled to see Pope Francis in Kazakhstan last year. They were welcome for two days — free of charge.
“Personally, a standout moment was the blessing of the icon of Our Lady of the Great Steppes, a powerful symbol of unity among the diverse peoples of Central Asia. It has only been two years since we established our bishops’ conference, and this icon has been instrumental in bringing the Church together,” reported the bishop.
He added, “Through this collective unity, I truly sensed the strength of our bond."
However, in neighboring Afghanistan, the situation is dramatically different.
Barnabite Msgr. Giovanni Scalese, ecclesiastical superior of the Roman Catholic mission of Afghanistan, observed that the Pope’s visit to Kazakhstan didn’t have a tangible impact due to the absence of a Christian community in Afghanistan. He explained that only a few isolated (non-Afghan) faithful exist, living “like sheep without a shepherd.” Msgr. Scalese was compelled to leave the country two years ago, following the Taliban’s assumption of power.
“In certain countries, regardless of the Pope’s identity, his influence remains minimal,” Msgr. Scalese told the Register.
In neighboring Turkmenistan, the impact of Pope Francis’ visits to Central Asia centers on fostering trust between the local government and the Catholic Church, Franciscan Father Jerzy Kotowski, who served in the country from 2019 to 2023, told the Register.
Catholics in Turkmenistan represent a minority. According to the Vatican Statistical Yearbook of the Church, there are three priests operating in the country and around 300 Catholics.
Father Kotowski noted, “Kazakhstan set an example of openness to Catholics by welcoming the Pope. Other neighboring nations, including Turkmenistan, are taking note, and this enhances respect for the Catholic clergy.”
The Catholic clergy holds diplomatic status in the country, recognized with Holy See passports and diplomatic visas, and they conduct their activities and prayers at the chapel located in the apostolic nunciature in the capital of Ashgabat.
Father Kotowski was the sole participant from Turkmenistan for the apostolic trip to Kazakhstan last year, primarily due to the challenges of travel that require special government permission for the citizens to travel abroad. “Upon my arrival from the meeting, there was a big enthusiasm among Turkmeni Catholics to learn about the Pope’s journey,” the priest said. “Given that the national television did not cover the trip, I showed images and brief videos captured on my phone.” It’s noteworthy that access to YouTube and social-media platforms in Turkmenistan is restricted.
Understandably, the most significant impact of Pope Francis’ trip to Kazakhstan last year was felt by the local Church.
One of the fruits is an agreement between Kazakhstan and the Vatican, regulating the issuance of permanent residency permits for Catholic priests, women religious and missionaries from abroad. Signed last year, it went into effect on July 19.
Bishop Yevgeniy Zinkovskiy, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Central Asia, explained, “This agreement crowned many years of effort by the pastors of the Church in caring for our missionaries to obtain residency in our country to facilitate their stay among those they came to serve and preach the Word of God.”
Another remarkable event took place on July 7, when the statue of Our Lady, Queen of Peace was crowned in the only Marian shrine in Central Asia. Pope Francis sent a special letter in which he called on the country’s faithful, “United by devotion and love for the Virgin Mary in this Sanctuary, where She reigns as the Queen of Peace, to pray for the peace that today’s world thirsts for.”
Pope Francis’ Peace Mission
Commenting on Pope Francis’ possible appeals for peace while in Mongolia, Bishop Mumbiela said, “The Pope’s primary mission is a visit to Mongolia, not mediation for peace.”
He added, “During his remarks in Kazakhstan, his words carried weight when he spoke about the role of religion in peace-making between cultures during times of war. He didn’t come for this purpose, but circumstances evolved this way.”
Unfortunately, Bishop Mumbiela noted, there are more conflicts in Asia, and “the Pope’s message of peace extends beyond conflicts like Ukraine; it’s needed in Asia.”
Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, apostolic administrator of Mongolia, told the Register, “The visit will boost the faith of the Catholic community here and also it will show that no one is neglected, no matter how big or small the community, or how far, or whatever situation they are in. All are part of the universality of the Catholic Church.”
While Pope Francis’ trip will enhance the Catholic community, it will also greatly contribute to the Mongolian government’s initiative to boost tourism. They have designated the years 2023-2025 as “Mongolia Visit Years.”
A few days before departing for Mongolia, after the Angelus prayer on Sunday, Pope Francis appealed to Mongolians, “I am happy to travel to be among you as a brother to all,” and it “will be an opportunity to embrace a Church that is small in number but vibrant in faith and great in charity. It is also a chance to meet, up close, a noble and wise people with a strong religious tradition, which I will have the honor of getting to know, especially in the context of an interreligious event.”
During his 43rd apostolic journey, Pope Francis will become the first pope in history to visit Mongolia. Over the four-day trip, the Holy Father will meet with government leaders, Catholic clergy and religious, as well as pastoral workers. He will engage in interreligious dialogue and celebrate Mass for the local Catholic population.
This week, around a thousand pilgrims from Central Asia and beyond, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and China, are traveling to Mongolia to welcome Pope Francis. The motto of the trip, “Hoping Together,” reflects the anticipation and optimism of Catholics in Central Asia for Pope Francis’ second visit to the region.
Alexey Gotovskiy has worked at the EWTN Vatican Bureau as a journalist, TV Producer & Manager for the last 7 years. He was born in the Soviet Union, grew up in Russia, was raised in Kazakhstan, and received his graduate level education in Church Communications at the Roman Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.