Pope heads to Mongolia in centuries-old diplomatic exchange

When Pope Francis travels to Mongolia this week, he will in some ways be completing a mission begun by the 13th-century Pope Innocent IV, who dispatched emissaries east to ascertain the intentions of the rapidly expanding Mongol Empire and beseech its leaders to halt the bloodshed and convert.

Those medieval exchanges between Roman pope and Mongolian khan were full of bellicose demands for submission and conversion, with each side claiming to be acting in the name of God, according to texts of the letters that survive.

But the exchanges also showed mutual respect at a time when the Catholic Church was waging Crusades and the Mongol Empire was conquering lands as far west as Hungary in what would become the largest contiguous land empire in world history.

Some 800 years later, Francis won’t be testing new diplomatic waters or seeking to proselytize Mongolia’s mostly Buddhist people when he arrives in the capital Ulaanbaatar Friday for a four-day visit.

His trip is nevertheless a historic meeting of East and West, the first-ever visit by a Roman pontiff to Mongolia to minister to one of the tiniest, newest Catholic communities in the world.

The Mongol Empire under its famed founder Genghis Khan was known for tolerating people of different faiths among those it conquered, and Francis will likely emphasize that tradition of religious coexistence when he presides over an interfaith meeting Sunday. It was after all, one of Genghis Khan’s descendants, Kublai Khan, who welcomed Marco Polo into his court in Mongol-ruled China, providing the Venetian merchant with the experiences that would give Europe one of the best written accounts of Asia, its culture, geography and people.

Invited to Francis’ interfaith event are Mongolian Buddhists, Jewish, Muslim and Shinto representatives as well as members of Christian churches that have established a presence in Mongolia in the last 30 years, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which officially claims more than 12,500 members in Mongolia in 22 congregations.

(source: Associated press)

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