ULAANBAATAR, Sept. 4 (Reuters) – Pope Francis on Monday concluded a historic visit to Mongolia that gained international connotations due to his overtures to neighboring China on religious freedom.
At the end of Sunday’s Mass, the Pope sent his greetings to China, describing its citizens as a “noble” people and asking Catholics in China to be “good Christians and good citizens.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Monday that it had taken a positive stance on improving relations with the Vatican.
Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said in a press conference when asked about the Pope’s statements in Mongolia that Beijing has maintained its contacts with the Vatican.
The main purpose of Francis’ trip was to visit the small Catholic community. He ended his five-day mission on Monday with a stop to open the House of Mercy, which provides health care to the most needy people in the Mongolian capital as well as to the homeless, victims of domestic violence and migrants.
Located in a converted school and the brainchild of Mongolia’s most senior Catholic cleric, Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, the House of Mercy will coordinate the work of Catholic missionary institutions and local volunteers.
“The real progress of any country is not measured by economic wealth, let alone investment in the illusory force of armaments, but by its ability to provide health, education and integrated development for its people,” Francis said at home.
He also said he wanted to dispel the “myth” that the goal of Catholic institutions is to convert people to the religion “as if caring for others were a way to entice people to ‘join’.”
In Buddhist-majority Mongolia, there are only 1,450 Catholics out of a population of 3.3 million, and on Sunday almost the entire Catholic community was under one roof with the Pope.
On Monday, about two dozen Chinese Catholics surrounded the Pope’s motorcade as he tried to receive his blessings.
The worshipers, who identified themselves as Catholics from mainland China and wore uniforms reading “Love Jesus,” gathered outside the House of Mercy.
As Francis’s motorcade left the centre, they sang a Christian hymn dedicated to the pope in Mandarin and tried to elude security and reach his car. One of the women was able to pass security and received the blessing.
“I’m so happy, I can’t even control my emotions now,” the woman said.
Mongolia was part of China until 1921, and the Pope’s trip has seen hints or appeals to the neighboring superpower, as the Vatican has tense relations with the ruling Communist Party.
In words that appeared to be aimed at China rather than Mongolia, Francis said on Saturday that governments had nothing to fear from the Catholic Church because it had no political agenda.
Beijing pursues a policy of “Sinicization” of religion, in an attempt to eradicate foreign influences and impose obedience to the Communist Party.
The Chinese constitution guarantees religious freedom, but in recent years the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the party’s authority.
In December, the United States designated China, Iran, and Russia, among others, as Countries of Particular Concern under the Religious Freedom Act for serious violations.
The landmark 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops was fragile at best, with the Vatican complaining that Beijing had violated that agreement several times.
The phrase the pope used on Sunday — “good Christians, good citizens” — is one the Vatican uses frequently in trying to convince communist governments that giving Catholics more freedom will only help their countries advance socially and economically.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella and Joseph Campbell – Preparing by Mohammed for the Arabic Bulletin) Editing by Michael Perry and Angus MacSwan
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