(TibetanReview.net, Sep05’23) – Pope Francis has returned to Rome on Sep 4 after the first papal voyage to Mongolia in a trip overshadowed by apparent overtures to Beijing, with whom the Vatican has for years struggled to make inroads, reported the AFP Sep 5. Mongolia is a country where the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism has the most number of followers of any religion at over 50% of the population (out of over 60% believers) and Catholic Christians number less than 1,500 people.
On his flight home, the Pope has told reporters “Relations with China are very respectful, very. I have a great admiration for the Chinese people,” adding “I think we need to go further on the religious side to understand each other better.
“So Chinese citizens don’t think that the Church doesn’t accept their own culture, their own values and that the Church represents another foreign power.”
Francis has made a similar point earlier, telling a group of missionaries on Aug 2 in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar that governments had “nothing to fear” from the Catholic Church, in a statement widely seen as a reassurance to China.
Still, this will be a tough sell in China where a process of Sinicization of religion is underway and law bans contact with foreign religious leaders and authorities.
Francis, in the 11th year of his papacy, is anxious to make inroads for the Catholic Church in China, where a contentious 2018 deal renewed last year gave both Beijing and the Vatican a voice in choosing cardinals.
The Vatican does not have diplomatic relations with China. It recognizes Chinese-claimed Taiwan. China’s Catholics have long been split between a state-backed official church and a persecuted underground flock loyal to the Pope.
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During an interfaith meeting on Sep 3, the Pope called himself one of the “humble heirs” of ancient schools of wisdom and quoted the Buddha to urge all religions to live in harmony and shun ideological fundamentalism that foments violence.
“Religions are called to offer the world this harmony, which technological progress alone cannot bestow,” Francis said after listening to addresses from leaders representing Mongolian Buddhists, Muslims, evangelicals, Jews, Orthodox, Mormons, Hindus, Shintos, Bahais and shamans, reported Reuters Sep 3.
Francis has quoted from a writings of the Buddha that says “the wise man rejoices in giving”, noting it was similar to Jesus’ saying “It is more blessed to give than to receive”.
Since he started the trip (on Sep 2), Francis has praised religious freedom in Mongolia, which was severely repressed while the country was in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence – a fact mentioned by one of the Buddhist leaders who addressed him, the report said.
The Pope has repeated on Sep 3 that he put great importance in “ecumenical, inter-religious and cultural dialogue”. Dialogue did not mean “to gloss over difference” but to seek understanding and enrichment, the report cited him as saying.
Conservative Catholics, such as Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, have lambasted the pope for even attending such gatherings, calling them “a supermarket of religions” that diminishes the status of the Catholic Church, the report said.
Mongolia has seen a revival of Tibetan Buddhism since the collapse of the Soviet-backed Communist government in 1990, and the Dalai Lama is regarded as its main spiritual leader.
However, China has repeatedly put pressure on Mongolia to prevent the 88-year-old exiled Tibetan leader from visiting the country, calling him a separatist, even though he only seeks genuine autonomy for his homeland of over 6 million Tibetans.
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China prohibited Catholic bishops in China from crossing the border to meet with the Pope, reported religionnews.com Sep 1. The order was stated to have been issued by the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party.
However, a few Chinese Catholics had come to sneak a peek at the Pope during an official welcome ceremony in the main square of Ulaanbaatar on Sep 2, enthusiastically waving their country’s flag, said another Reuters report Sep 3.
Brandishing red, five-starred Chinese flags, two dozen Chinese nationals who identified themselves as Catholic devotees crowded around a police barrier to catch a glimpse of Francis on Sep 2 morning.
The report cited Yang Guang, a 37-year-old Catholic from Shanghai, as saying he came to Mongolia for a holiday but was glad to catch a glimpse of the pope at Sukhbaatar Square.
“I’m just extremely happy because this is the first time I’ve seen him. It’s not as if I have this kind of opportunity all the time. I’m just very happy. Passion,” Yang has told Reuters.
A few other Chinese nationals could be seen receiving blessings from a cardinal on the sidelines of ceremony, the report added.