Pope Francis, 86, ended this Monday (4) his four-day visit to Mongolia marked by messages to neighboring China, a country that does not maintain diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
The balance of the trip seems positive due to attempts to get closer. In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China said that Beijing will adopt “positive attitudes” to improve relations with the Vatican. The statement was released after a series of nods from the pope to the Chinese regime.
Francis said on Sunday (3) that China has a “noble people” and urged Catholics in the Asian giant to be “good Christians and good citizens”. The comments were not foreseen in the pope’s official address and, according to analysts, appear to be an attempt to ease tensions with Beijing.
The relationship between China and the Vatican had deteriorated in recent months after the regime appointed the bishop of Shanghai without Francis’ approval. The action violated a pact that, signed in 2018, determined that all appointments of bishops and priests in China had to be recognized by the pope.
Before, on Saturday (2), Francisco had already sent indirect messages to China. The pontiff said that governments should not fear the work of the Catholic Church because the institution does not have a political agenda. “[A Igreja] is sustained by the silent power of God’s grace and a message of mercy and truth, which seeks to promote good,” he said in a speech to bishops, priests and pastoral workers.
China’s constitution provides for religious freedom, but in recent years the regime has pursued a policy of “sinicization” of religion, trying to eradicate foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party. Beijing is wary of international organizations, including religious ones, which it believes threaten its authority, and it does not maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Officially, the pope’s trip aimed to express support for the small local Catholic community. Mongolia has a Buddhist majority and just 1,450 Catholics among a population of more than 3.3 million people. The visit, however, was considered crucial for the Vatican’s relations with Beijing and Moscow, capitals to which the pope has not been invited since the start of the Ukrainian War.
The pope is critical of the ongoing conflict in Eastern Europe since February 2022. China is Russia’s main ally and has never publicly condemned Vladimir Putin’s offensive against his neighbor. Mongolia shares a border and maintains trade relations with both countries.
During the nine-hour flight to the Asian nation, Francis sent messages with “prayers and good wishes” to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The act, according to the Vatican, followed the tradition of thanking the countries flown over by the papal plane.
Several Chinese Catholics traveled to Mongolia to observe the pope up close. This Monday, a group sang messages to Francisco in Mandarin. A Chinese woman who declined to be named for security reasons told AFP that she faced difficulties during the pilgrimage. According to her, two people who were on the tour were detained in China for no apparent reason. “I’m ashamed to display the Chinese flag,” she said. “But I have to do this and show the Pope how difficult it is for us.”
In his last engagement in Mongolian territory, the pope attended the inauguration of the House of Mercy, which will provide health care to homeless people, victims of domestic violence and migrants.
“The true progress of a nation is not measured by economic wealth, much less by investment in the illusory power of armaments, but by the capacity to provide health, education and the integral development of its people”, Francis said, in another indirect message to the China and Russia.