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Gerard O’ConnellAugust 31, 2023
Pope Francis greets Buddhist leaders from Mongolia during an audience at the Vatican May 28, 2022. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

No bishop from mainland China has been allowed to travel to Mongolia as Pope Francis makes the first-ever visit by the leader of the Catholic Church to this vast landlocked country sandwiched between China and Russia.

America has learned from Vatican and other informed sources, who were not authorized to speak on the record, that although authorities in Beijing have allowed the ITA Airways plane on which the pope is traveling to fly over China’s airspace on the flight from Rome to Ulaanbaatar and on his return flight, they have not allowed any bishops or Catholics from mainland China to travel to the Mongolian capital for the pope’s visit. The order prohibiting the bishops and Catholics from traveling to Mongolia to join the pope came from the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party.

[Explainer: Mongolia only has 1,400 Catholics. Pope Francis is going there anyway.]

China and the Holy See signed a provisional agreement on the nomination of bishops in mainland China on Sept. 22, 2018, and a dialogue has been ongoing between the two sides, even though the relationship is not without difficulties. The prohibition will be a source of disappointment to Pope Francis and the Holy See, particularly given that since the signing of the provisional agreement, which has been renewed twice—in October 2020 and October 2022—all the Catholic bishops in mainland China are now in communion with the pope, including those that had originally been appointed by the government without Vatican approval. The order makes clear that the mainland Chinese bishops do not enjoy the same freedom that bishops in other countries have today to meet the pope or take part in universal church events.

No bishop from mainland China has been allowed to travel to Mongolia as Pope Francis makes the first-ever visit by the leader of the Catholic Church to this vast landlocked country.

At the same time, America has learned that three Chinese bishops from Hong Kong and Macau have arrived in the Mongolian capital. Cardinal John Tong Hon, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, has come with a group of 30 Catholics from that diocese. Hong Kong’s current bishop, Cardinal-elect Stephen Chow, S.J., has also arrived, as has the bishop of Macau, Stephen Lee Bun-sang.

Chinese authorities have not given a reason for prohibiting mainland bishops from traveling to Mongolia, an informed source told America. Given the good relations between Mongolia and China, the order appears to reflect not only the uneasy current state of Sino-Vatican relations but also the Chinese Communist Party’s fear of religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular. Though Mongolia has pursued a more independent policy since it regained its full independence in the early 1990s (the country was a satellite state of the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century), it nevertheless enjoys friendly relations with China, and China in turn has become Mongolia’s biggest trade partner and source of foreign investment, according to the United Nations.

Bishops from several Asian countries will also join Pope Francis in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city where almost half of the 3.4 million citizens of Mongolia live and where the pope will remain until Sept. 4 when he returns to Rome. These bishops include Cardinal Yeom Soo-Jung and other bishops from South Korea, Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij from Thailand, and bishops from Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. The cardinal archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, Charles Maung Bo, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, is also expected to be present in Mongolia for the pope’s visit. 

The order makes clear that the mainland Chinese bishops do not enjoy the same freedom that bishops in other countries have today to meet the pope or take part in universal church events.

In addition to many of the more than 1,400 Mongolian Catholics from the nine parishes in this vast land where the Catholic Church has come to exist again over the past 30 years, there will also be Catholics from Korea, Hong Kong and other countries in the congregation of some 3,000 faithful who will attend the Mass that Pope Francis will celebrate at the Steppe Arena in Ulaanbaatar on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 3.

On Sunday morning, an important ecumenical and interreligious event will take place at the capital city’s Hun Theatre. Catholics will join representatives of other religions, including those of Mongolia’s Tibetan-influenced Buddhism, which is the religion of some 50 percent of the population.

On the almost nine-and-a-half hour flight from Rome to Ulaanbaatar, Pope Francis will be accompanied by Cardinals Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state; Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, prefect of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue; Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Ecumenical Relations; and Archbishops Edgar Peña Parra, substitute for the secretariat of state, and Paul Gallagher, secretary for relations with states. Cardinal Luis Tagle, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Evangelization of Peoples, has already arrived in the Mongolian capital. Sixty-six Vatican-accredited media personnel, including America’s Vatican correspondent, are also accompanying the pope on the plane, together with Vatican security and medical personnel.

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