VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is heading to Mongolia at the end of the summer, a visit that will be a first for a pontiff and rich in geopolitical significance given its proximity to Russia and China.
The Vatican confirmed Saturday August 31-September. 4 trip to the US-allied landlocked country sandwiched between Russia and China, two countries the popes have never visited.
The visit comes as Francis attempts to toe a diplomatic line in his relations with the two countries: With Moscow, Francis seeks an opening for a peace envoy to push Russia and Ukraine toward negotiations to end the war. With China, the Vatican saw its landmark 2018 agreement on bishop appointments breached, with Beijing making unilateral decisions.
Francis will minister to a small Christian community in Mongolia, part of his goal being to visit remote Catholics on the outskirts of the church’s main centers of influence. According to statistics from the Catholic association Aid to the Church in Need, Mongolia is 53% tantric Buddhist, 39% atheist, 3% Muslim, 3% shaman and 2% Christian.
Mongolia has struggled to maintain its political and economic independence both from its Soviet-era patron, Moscow – which supplies almost all of its energy needs – and from the rising regional power, China, which buys more than 90% of its mining exports, mainly coal and copper.
At the same time, many people in Mongolia refer to the United States as their country’s “third neighbour” in recognition of the many and varied exchanges between the two that help counter both Russian and Chinese influence.