ULAANBAATAR – Pope Francis arrived in Mongolia on Friday, beginning the first papal visit to the vast Asian nation landlocked between China and Russia.
The 86-year-old pontiff’s trip through Monday to the Buddhist-majority nation is a gesture of support for the tiny community of Catholics numbering about 1,400.
He was greeted by a line of Mongolian honour guards in traditional blue, red and yellow attire and foreign minister Batmunkh Battsetseg.
Aboard the papal plane soon after take-off, Francis described the vast, sparsely populated country of Mongolia as one that “can be understood with the senses.”
Asked by a journalist whether he found diplomacy difficult, the pope answered: “Yes, you don’t know how difficult it is.
“Sometimes you need a sense of humour.”
The nine-hour flight passed over Chinese airspace and the pontiff, following custom, sent a telegram to President Xi Jinping, bearing “greetings of good wishes” to him and the Chinese people.
“Assuring you of my prayers for the well-being of the nation, I invoke upon all of you the divine blessings of unity and peace,” he wrote.
The voyage — Francis’ second to the region in a year after a September trip to Kazakhstan — is geopolitically strategic.
It is seen as encouraging Mongolia’s fragile democracy and potentially helping the Church make inroads with the country’s more powerful neighbours.
“This is a clear effort of the Holy See to take care of Central Asia and not abandon it to Russia or China,” Michel Chambon, a scholar of Catholicism in Asia, told AFP.
The visit — Francis’ 43rd voyage in his decade as head of the Catholic Church — is also crucial in keeping the door open for improved Vatican ties with Beijing and Moscow, which have yet to offer the Pope an invitation.