ULAANBADAR, Sept 4 (Reuters) – Pope Francis ended a historic international trip to Mongolia as he addressed neighboring China on religious freedom.
At the end of a Mass on Sunday, the pope sent greetings to China, calling its citizens a “noble” people and asking Catholics in China to be “good Christians and good citizens.”
On Monday, China’s foreign ministry said it had taken a positive approach to improving relations with the Vatican.
Beijing is maintaining contacts with the Vatican, ministry spokesman Mao Ning said at a press conference when asked about the pope’s comments in Mongolia.
The main purpose of Francis’ trip was to visit the small Catholic community. He wrapped up his five-day mission on Monday with a stop in the Mongolian capital to open a charity home that provides health care to the most needy, the homeless, victims of domestic abuse and migrants.
Housed in a converted school and the brainchild of Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, Mongolia’s top Catholic priest, the House of Mercy will coordinate the work of Catholic missionary organizations and local volunteers.
“The real progress of a nation is not measured by economic wealth, by investing in the illusory power of arms, but by its ability to provide health, education and integrated development to its people,” Francis said at home.
He also said he wanted to dispel the “narrative” that Catholic institutions aim to convert people, adding that “caring for others is a way of motivating people to ‘join'”.
The predominantly Buddhist Mongolia has only 1,450 Catholics out of a population of 3.3 million and on Sunday the entire Catholic community was under one roof with the Pope.
On Monday, about two dozen Chinese Catholics surrounded the pope’s motorcade and sought his blessings.
Devotees who identified themselves as Catholics from mainland China, dressed in uniforms emblazoned with the words “Love Jesus,” gathered outside the House of Mercy.
As Francis’ motorcade left the center, they sang a Christian hymn dedicated to the pope in Mandarin and tried to bypass security and reach his car. A woman passed security and received a blessing.
“I am very happy and cannot control my emotions now,” said the woman.
Mongolia was part of China until 1921 and the pope’s visit was marked by references or appeals to the neighboring superpower, where the Vatican has strained relations with its ruling Communist Party.
On Saturday, in words aimed more at China than Mongolia, Francis said governments had nothing to fear because the Catholic Church had no political agenda.
Beijing has been pursuing a policy of “sinicization” of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party.
China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but in recent years the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the party’s power.
In December, the United States designated China, Iran and Russia as countries of particular concern under the Religious Freedom Act for serious violations.
A key 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops was so outstanding that the Vatican complained that Beijing repeatedly violated it.
The phrase used by the pope on Sunday — “good Christians and good citizens” — is often used by the Vatican to convince communist governments that giving Catholics more freedom will only help their countries’ social and economic progress.
Report by Philip Pullella and Joseph Campbell; Editing by Michael Perry and Angus MacSwan
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