Pope Francis is set to make the first-ever visit to Mongolia, a country with fewer than 1,500 Catholics, all of whom have come to the faith since 1992. But the pope’s visit is a reminder that the country has a long and complex history with Christianity, among many other faiths.
Mongolia has only 3.4 million people, and at least 87.4% are Buddhists. The small Catholic community came into existence after this landlocked country, bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south, began to abandon its communist ideology and embraced different religions. At that time, it also restored diplomatic relations with the Vatican and welcomed Catholic missionaries.
But Catholicism has been known to the Mongols since the early 13th century. As a scholar of religions in Asia, I am aware that Nestorianism, a Christian tradition commonly known as the Church of the East, reached the periphery of the Mongolian plateau as early as the eighth century, long before the Mongols became active in that area. Several old tribes in the Mongolian steppes were converted to Nestorianism around 1000 C.E.
The Mongol Empire was founded by Genghis Khan in 1206 after he conquered all the other nomadic tribes on the Mongolian Plateau. Later on, the empire extended from Mongolia to the Eastern Mediterranean regions.
Initially the Mongols practiced a Shamanic religion, worshipping the God Tengri. However, to be able to rule all conquered subjects across the vast empire, Genghis Khan issued the “Great Yasa,” a regulation allowing people under his regime the freedom to freely practice their faiths. Under the Mongol Empire, people practiced Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The visits of Catholic missionaries also prompted many Mongol Nestorians to start going on pilgrimages to West Asia as a way to expand their influence beyond their comfort zone under the Mongol Empire.
In 1287 a Nestorian monk, Rabban Bar Sauma, embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Khanbaliq, near modern Beijing. Later Sauma’s student Rabban Markos became a patriarch with a title Yahballaha III, or the chief of the Nestorian Church, in the Mongol-ruled Ilkhanate Empire in modern-day Iran.
At the same time, the Catholic missionaries also started to expand their influence in Central Asia. In 1307 a Franciscan priest, John of Montecorvino, built a Catholic church in Khanbaliq and became the patriarch under the order of Pope Clement V. He had converted about 6,000 people in Mongolia by 1313.
Over the next few centuries, the religious landscape in Mongolia continued to change, depending on who was ruling the region.
Many Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism during the later part of the 13th-century reign of the Kublai Khan, another grandson of Genghis Khan, who favored the religion. But after 1368, when the Mongols withdrew from central China and left Khanbaliq, the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism was suppressed. The Nestorian community gradually disappeared and never revived again.
However, under the Qing dynasty that ruled China and Mongolia in the 17th century, Buddhism was revived. But again, in the 20th century Mongolian politics changed drastically when the country adopted communism following the Soviet Union’s intervention, and the practice of Buddhism declined again.
After Mongolia became a democracy in 1992, Mongols were allowed to freely practice their faiths again: Buddhism began to flourish, and Catholic missionaries arrived in the country and built a small Catholic community.
When the pope visits this complex religious terrain, his visit will be significant from the geopolitical and religious perspective.
Overall, I argue that the pope’s groundbreaking visit to Mongolia might send important signals in East Asia and, in particular, to the much larger Catholic community in China.