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Buddhist Leaders to Take Part in Interfaith Dialogue with Pope Francis in His First Trip to Mongolia

Pope Francis greets Mongolian Buddhist leaders at the Vatican. 2022. From

Pope Francis has announced that he will visit Mongolia this week, from 31 August–4 September. This will be the pope’s first-ever journey to the country, and comes as the pontiff continues his work to build firm relationships between the Catholic Church and Buddhists around the world.

The planned visit comes a year after Bishop Giorgio Marengo of Ulaanbaatar visited the pope to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1992 arrival of Christian missionaries in Mongolia, the first to enter after the country’s break from the Soviet Union and the establishment of a new constitution. In 1992, Mongolia also established official diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

While Mongolia, a country of some 3.4 million people, only has around 1,500 Catholics, that number is up from fewer than 200 in 2003.

“Our relations with Buddhists are very good,” said Sister Lieve Stragier, a Belgian missionary from the De Jagt congregation, who has lived in Mongolia for 15 years. Sister Stragier expressed her belief that the pope could strengthen ties with Buddhists by clearly distinguishing Catholics from the often more “aggressive” Protestant or evangelical Christians found in Mongolia. (Aleteia)

As part of the pope’s mission, he will join an interfaith meeting with Mongolian Buddhist leaders on 3 September. In welcoming Mongolian Buddhists to the Vatican last year, the pope emphasized the common ideals of the Buddha and Jesus as peace-makers and promoters of nonviolence.

“In a world ravaged by conflict and war, as religious leaders, deeply rooted in our respective religious doctrines, we have a duty to inspire in humanity the will to renounce violence and build a culture of peace,” the pope declared at last year’s meeting. (Vatican)

Pope Francis greets Mongolian Buddhist leaders at the Vatican in2022. From

The visit continues the pope’s efforts to build bridges with Buddhists around the world. He has already visited Japan, Myanmar, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, countries with rich Buddhist histories and relatively small Catholic populations. The trip to Mongolia marks his first visit to a country predominantly practicing Vajrayana Buddhism. In his work, Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of his predecessor, John Paul II, who established relationships with Buddhists starting in the 1980s.

However, relations between the Vatican and His Holiness the Dalai Lama have been strained in recent years. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI canceled a planned meeting with the Tibetan Buddhist leader, and in 2014, Pope Francis chose not to meet with the Dalai Lama when the two were at a peace summit in Rome.

These moves have led Gandan Monastery in Mongolia, which practices in the Gelugpa tradition under the Dalai Lama, to avoid relations with the Catholic church of Mongolia.  

In addition to local tensions, the trip will likely have larger political and religious implications. Huaiyu Chen, professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University, wrote: “When the pope visits this complex religious terrain, his visit will be significant from the geopolitical and religious perspective: In June 2023, the pope’s peace envoy visited Russia as part of international peacemaking efforts. But no pope has ever visited its other close neighbor, China, which does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican.” (Journal Courier)

Mongolia has a rich history of international political and religious relations. Genghis Khan’s successor, Ögedei Khan (r. 1229–41), helped to make the Mongol Empire the largest contiguous land empire in history. His son, Godan Khan, would become the first Buddhist Mongolian prince, starting a long history of ties with Tibet.

Today, 51.7 per cent of the country identifies as Buddhist, while 40.6 per cent claim no religion at all. Muslims account for 3.2 per cent of Mongolians, practitioners of shamanism 2.5 per cent, and Christians 1.3 per cent of the population.

See more

Dialogue with Buddhism & China: challenges for the Pope in Mongolia (Aleteia)
With fewer than 1,500 Catholics in Mongolia, Pope Francis’ upcoming visit brings attention to the long and complex history of the minority religious group (Journal Courier)
Mission to Mongolia: Pope will encourage tiny flock, promote harmony (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)
To a Buddhist Delegation from Mongolia (Vatican)

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Mongolia Launches National Campaign to Plant One Billion Trees by 2030
Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace Marks 50th Anniversary in Mongolia
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