Why is the Pope in Mongolia?

Hope, mercy and murders in Ulaanbaatar
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.

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