Pope Francis travels to Mongolia, a nation with an isolated small Catholic community, on Thursday. This move could be directed towards enhancing relations with China and Russia, utilizing the country’s strategic location and regional impartiality, as suggested by a senior fellow.

Pope Francis heads to Mongolia this week, an unlikely choice given the isolated nation’s small Catholic community, but a strategic one due to the young democracy’s geographical position between two superpowers.

In venturing to the sparsely populated, vast Buddhist-majority nation, the pope may eye Mongolia as a way to help build bridges with its neighbors China and Russia, given its strategic location and neutrality in the volatile region.

The trip, which involves a nine-hour flight from Rome on Thursday to the capital of Ulaanbaatar, will also be closely watched as a stamina test for the 86-year-old pope, who underwent hernia surgery in June and suffers pain when walking.

A former Soviet satellite state that has been a democracy since 1992, Mongolia has one of the world’s youngest and smallest Catholic communities, estimated at approximately 1,400 people among its population of 3.3 million.

It has just 25 Catholic priests, only two of them Mongolian, and 33 nuns, according to the Vatican, although its ranks include the global Church’s youngest cardinal.

Pope Francis says he is “happy” to visit Mongolia as “a brother to all,” after his public Sunday Angelus prayer from the balcony of the Apostolic Palace on August 27, 2023, in The Vatican. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

Pope Francis’s trip to rapidly urbanizing Ulaanbaatar represents the Jesuit’s desire to bring the Church’s message to remote, largely ignored areas far from Rome while championing interfaith dialogue.

But the trip, lasting until September 4, also has undeniably geopolitical aims.

The Vatican’s long-term thinking is “to retain a presence and openness in countries where that’s not an inevitability,” Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs in Washington, said.

‘Rediscovery of values’

Once part of the empire of Genghis Khan, landlocked Mongolia is sandwiched between Russia and China, dependent on the former for energy imports and on the latter for the export of its raw materials, primarily coal.

But Mongolia has sought to toe a neutral line with its expansionist neighbors, while reaching for balance among powers including the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

That makes Mongolia potentially helpful for Vatican relations with both Beijing, with whom the Holy See last year renewed a deal on the thorny issue of bishop appointments, and Moscow, with whom Pope Francis has sought to broker an end to the war in Ukraine.

Mongolia also maintains relations with North Korea.

That has spurred a “rediscovery of values” between democratic nations and Mongolia, he said, amid rising Russian aggression and concern over an unchecked China.

Katrine Dige Houmøller, with AFP