Pope Francis urged Chinese Catholics to be “good Christians and good citizens” on Sunday during his visit to Mongolia, signaling his ongoing Vatican-Beijing reconciliation efforts amid Chinese government caution about the Church’s influence.

Pope Francis on Sunday told Catholics in China to be “good Christians and good citizens”, using his visit to Mongolia to help ease tensions between the Vatican and Beijing.

Following a mass before the scant Catholic population in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, Francis turned his attention to officially-atheist China, some of whose citizens had flown in for the pope’s visit.

Pope Francis arrives for an Ecumenical and interreligious meeting in Ulaanbaatar on September 3, 2023. (Alberto PIZZOLI, AFP)

Flanked by Hong Kong’s current bishop, Stephen Chow, and its bishop emeritus, Cardinal John Tong Hon, the 86-year-old pope said they joined him to send “a warm greeting to the noble Chinese people”.

“To Chinese Catholics, I ask you to be good Christians and good citizens,” said the pope.

The unscripted comments were Francis’s latest attempt to reassure China’s Communist government, which is wary of the Church’s presence in its country.

On Saturday, Francis appeared to send a more tacit message, telling a gathering of Catholic missionaries that governments had “nothing to fear” from the Catholic Church.

In choosing to visit the vast, isolated nation of Mongolia sandwiched between China and Russia, the pope’s goals were twofold.

On one hand, the trip showed the Jesuit’s desire to bring the Church’s message to remote, largely ignored areas where Catholicism is young and unfamiliar.

But looming over the trip has been a more strategic, geopolitical objective, that of thawing frosty relations with Beijing.

In the ice rink’s stands, Mongolian student Nomin Batbayar said Francis’s focus on interreligious dialogue recalled “how my ancestors in the 13th century felt, with Buddhism, Islam, Shamanism, Christianity in the same city, living peacefully with each other”.

“China isn’t really supporting him, but their people are here today,” said Batbayar, 18.

Freedom of religion in Mongolia, which became a democracy in 1992, is in sharp contrast to neighboring China.

There are about 1,400 Catholics in Mongolia out of a population of 3.3 million people. Only 25 are priests, and just two of those are Mongolian.

Buddhism and Shamanism are the main religions followed in Mongolia.

Katrine Dige Houmøller, with AFP