Why is the Pope in Mongolia?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 10, 2023
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TWTB collage: Ulaanbaatar (top) by Munkh-Erdene Eenee | Unsplash

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The Big Story:

This week, Pope Francis becomes the first head of the Catholic Church in its 2,000-year history to visit Mongolia, a vast, rugged nation with just 1,450 Catholics. It comes amid rising strategic interest in resource-rich Mongolia, which the Harvard International Review is calling ‘Minegolia’. In May, Emmanuel Macron made the first trip by a French president to Mongolia. The United States has significant investment in the country’s mining industry, Mongolia is calling the US its “third neighbor” and its Harvard-educated prime minister visited Washington in early August.

The Holy See’s logo has a map of Mongolia outlined in the red and blue of its national flag; yellow smoke for the Vatican flag issuing from a traditional Mongolian dwelling, and a Mongolian inscription near the cross

The Backstory:

Mongolia is not a particularly religious country. Roughly 60% of its 3.3 million people identify as religious, of which nearly 90% espouse Buddhist sympathies, according to the US State Department. So why is Pope Francis spending four days in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar? Some say it’s because the Pope wants the Roman Catholic Church to be seen as a 21st century bridge-building institution committed to inter-faith dialogue. Historically, the Christian faith had a presence in Central Asia since the 7th century and the Vatican established diplomatic ties with the Mongols’ transcontinental empire in the 13th century.

But might this papal visit have geopolitical implications? Mongolia lies “between the bear and the dragon with the eagle overhead”, i.e., Russia to the north, China to the south and with America as an ally. It wants to present itself as an international hub between Europe and Asia. There is some speculation Mongolia could facilitate talks between Ukraine and Russia. Of the four Mongolian presidents who studied abroad, two were trained in Russia and two in Ukraine. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spent three years in Mongolia as a child. Whatever happens, Mongolia is worth watching. In 2016, it became the first country to adopt a pioneering postal address system developed by British startup What3Words.

In the world of books, Mongolia has mostly featured in pulp crime fiction (think L Ron Hubbard), travel accounts and portraits of its national hero Genghis Khan (see bonus picks).

This Week, Those Books:

Picks for this week are a detective series set in post-Soviet Mongolia and the Pope’s exploration of the word at the heart of his lifelong journey of faith: mercy.

  • The Shadow Walker
  • The Adversary
  • The Outcast

By: Michael Walters

Publisher: Quercus

Year: 2006, 2007, 2008

This riveting trilogy features Mongolian police officers Nergui and Doripalam.

The strapline on the cover of The Shadow Walker says “murder at the edge of the world”. The series offers fascinating glimpses of a little-known country and culture. We find a sparsely populated land – “little more than one person per square kilometer of land” – where half the people still live in traditional ger tents. The in-flight meal on Mongolia’s national airline MIAT consists “entirely of a selection of meats – cured, roast, perhaps boiled – accompanied by an apparently unending supply of miniature Mongolian vodkas.”

The first book starts with a drunk discovering a body in an Ulanbaatar side street. Unidentifiable, with head and hands removed, it’s followed by similarly gruesome murders. In a country where the single most common crime is “the theft of cattle”, is Mongolia’s first serial killer on the loose?

When the mutilated body of a British businessman is found, British policeman Drew McLeish is despatched to Mongolia. The case takes McLeish and Nergui out into the vast Gobi Desert, looking into the race to profit from Mongolia’s vast mineral reserves.

  • The Name of God is Mercy: A conversation with Andrea Tornielli

By: Pope Francis (author), Oonagh Stransky (Translator)

Publisher: Random House

Year: 2016

The Pope’s first book after he assumed the office in 2013, this conversation with a veteran Vatican journalist became a New York Times bestseller. It contains some pointed questions, not least “When you think of merciful priests you have met, who comes to mind?”

Choice quotes:

“Sin is more than a stain. Sin is a wound; it needs to be treated, healed.”

“If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person?…I am glad that we are talking about ‘homosexual people’ because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies”.

BONUS: Honourable mentions

Anthropologist Jack Weatherford has done much to inform the world about Mongolia. In 2005, there was his bestselling Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. In 2016, Genghis Khan and the Quest for God said the Mongol empire maintained a separation of church and state like America

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