ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (AP) — Pope Francis sent a special greeting to China’s “noble” people on Sunday, giving them a special shout-out at the end of a Mass celebrated in neighboring Mongolia during the first-ever papal visit that was largely overshadowed by Beijing and its crackdown on religious minorities.
Francis brought up to the altar the retired and current bishops of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Hon Tong and Cardinal-elect Stephen Chow, clasped their hands and told the crowd that included many mainland Chinese pilgrims that he wished them all well.
“I want to take advantage of their presence to send a warm greeting to the noble Chinese people,” Francis said. “To all the (Chinese) people I wish the best and to always go forward, always progress.”
“I ask Chinese Catholics to be good Christians and good citizens,” he added, to cheers from the crowd in the Steppe Arena, in the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
It was the first and only time that Francis has publicly mentioned China during his four-day visit, despite the large shadow that Beijing has cast over the trip and Mongolia.
China's ruling Communist Party has been waging a years-long, sweeping crackdown on religion, tightening controls, especially on Christianity and Islam that are viewed as foreign imports and potential challengers to Communist authority. The crackdown targeting Uyghurs in the northwestern Xinjiang region has been especially fierce, with claims that more than 1 million ethnic minority members were forcibly sent to prison-like reeducation centers where many have said they were tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to abandon their language and religion.
The U.N. last year accused China of serious human rights violations that may amount to “crimes against humanity;” China has denied targeting Uyghurs and others for their religion and culture, denouncing the accusations as lies by the West and saying its crackdown was aimed at quashing separatism, terrorism and religious extremism.
The pope did send a telegram of greeting to President Xi Jinping as his aircraft flew early Friday through Chinese airspace, offering him "divine blessings of unity and peace." The Beijing foreign ministry acknowledged the gesture and said it showed “friendliness and goodwill.”
But while small groups of Chinese pilgrims attended Francis' main Mass here, no mainland Chinese bishop was believed to have been given permission to travel for the papal visit to Mongolia. Their absence underscored the tenuousness of a 2018 Vatican-China accord over Catholic bishop nominations, which Beijing has violated by making appointments unilaterally.
Earlier Sunday, China's crackdown on faith groups was indirectly apparent as Francis highlighted, by contrast, Mongolia's long tradition of religious tolerance: He presided over an interfaith event with Mongolian shamans, Buddhist monks, Muslim, Jewish, Shinto leaders and a Russian Orthodox priest.
Sitting among them on a theater stage, Francis listened intently as the faith leaders described their beliefs, their relationship with heaven and the peace and harmony their faiths bring the world. Several said the traditional Mongolian ger, or round-shaped yurt, was a potent symbol of harmony with the divine — a warm place of family unity, open to the heavens, where strangers are welcome.
“The fact that we are meeting together in one place already sends a message: It shows that the religious traditions, for all their distinctiveness and diversity, have impressive potential for the benefit of society as a whole,” Francis said.
“If the leaders of nations were to choose the path of encounter and dialogue with others, it would be a decisive contribution to ending the conflicts continuing to afflict so many of the world’s peoples,” he said.
Francis is in Mongolia to minister to one of the world’s smallest and newest Catholic communities and highlight Mongolia’s tradition of tolerance in a region where the Holy See's relations with neighboring China and Russia are often strained. Beijing’s crackdown on religious minorities has been a constant backdrop to the trip, even though the Vatican hopes to focus attention instead on Mongolia and its 1,450 Catholics.
Hong Kong Cardinal-elect Chow, who made a historic visit to Beijing earlier this year, accompanied 40 pilgrims to Mongolia. He declined to discuss the absence of his mainland Chinese counterparts, focusing instead on the importance of Francis' visit to Mongolia for the Asian church.
“I think the Asian church is also a growing church. Not as fast as Africa — Africa is growing fast — but the Asian church also has a very important role to play now in the universal church,” he told reporters.
Chinese President Xi has demanded that Catholicism and all other religions adhere strictly to party directives and undergo “Sinicization.” In the vast Xinjiang region, that has led to the demolition of an unknown number of mosques, but in most cases, it has meant the removal of domes, minarets and exterior crosses from churches.
“We really hope that gradually our government and leaders will accept him and invite him to visit our country,” said Yan Zhiyong, a Chinese Catholic businessman in Mongolia who attended an event on Saturday with Francis at the city’s cathedral. “That would be the most joyful thing for us.”
Most Mongolians follow the dominant Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism and revere its leader, the Dalai Lama. As a result, many Mongolians are concerned with the Communist Party’s opposition to the exiled Tibetan leader and its heavy-handed control over monastic life and what appears to be a concerted effort to gradually eliminate Tibetan culture.
Yet, given the need to maintain stable relations with Beijing — China is Mongolia's top export partner — the country’s leaders have not spoken out on the matter, just as they have remained largely silent about repressive linguistic and cultural policies toward their ethnic brethren in China's Inner Mongolia region.
Francis also has largely avoided antagonizing Beijing, most significantly by dodging any criticism of Beijing or by meeting with the Dalai Lama.
While the Dalai Lama wasn’t present Sunday, he was mentioned by the head of Mongolia’s main Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Khamba Nomun Khan Gabju Choijamts Demberel.
The abbot noted that “His Holiness,” as the Dalai Lama is known, had recently recognized the 10th reincarnation of the head lama of Mongolian Buddhists.
“This is an extraordinary fortune for us,” said the abbot.
The recognition has posed a problem, given that China requires all reincarnated lamas to be born within China and be officially certified by Beijing; the newly recognized Mongolian lama meets neither criterion.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.