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What Pope Francis’ trip to Mongolia could mean for Vatican relations with Russia and China…

Mongolia shares a nearly 3,000-mile border with China, which is also Mongolia’s most significant economic partner. Historically, the Mongols conquered all of China during the 13th century and later Mongolia was a part of China’s Qing dynasty for more than two centuries, so one could argue that this is the closest the Catholic Church has ever come to a papal trip to China.

Chinese Cardinal-elect Stephen Chow of Hong Kong has said that he will travel to Mongolia for the pope’s trip with a delegation of about 30 Hong Kong Catholics. Earlier this year, Chow became the first Hong Kong bishop to make an official visit to Beijing in nearly 30 years. 

While Pope Francis is in Mongolia, the Chinese Communist Party will implement new religious restrictions, titled “Regulations on the Management of Religious Activity Sites,” which come into force on Sept. 1. The restrictions ban the display of religious symbols outdoors, require preaching to “reflect core socialist values” and limit all religious activities to government-approved religious venues, according to China Aid. 

The Chinese religious freedom restrictions will affect Christians and Buddhists alike, including in the regions of Tibet and Inner Mongolia, which could be a potential talking point for the Buddhist-Catholic interreligious dimension of Pope Francis’ Mongolia trip. The pope, who has previously received a delegation of Mongolian Buddhist leaders at the Vatican, is scheduled to take part in an interreligious meeting in Ulaanbaatar on Sept. 3.

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Vatican-China relations have had a rocky year. Last month, the Vatican announced Pope Francis’ decision to approve the appointment of the bishop of Shanghai who was previously installed by Chinese authorities without the Holy See’s approval. It was the second unauthorized appointment by Beijing since November 2022.

China currently dominates Mongolia’s trade, with Mongolia sending 86% of its exports to China. Coal accounts for the majority of China’s imports from Mongolia. During the Mongolian prime minister’s six-day trip to China this summer, the prime minister spoke about taking China-Mongolian relations “to new heights” and signed a contract for the construction of a $1.8 billion railway connection to further expand trade and economic cooperation between the two countries, a boost to China’s future Mongolian coal imports.

Notably, Mongolia also agreed to deepen cooperation to mine rare earth metals with its “third neighbor,” the United States, during an official state visit by the prime minister to Washington earlier this month. The U.S. also signed an “Open Skies” agreement with Mongolia, paving the way for Mongolian Airlines to fly to the United States for the first time.

Pope Francis is set to travel to outer Mongolia over the upcoming Labor Day weekend. During the four-day trip, the pope is scheduled to meet with government leaders, engage in interreligious dialogue, and offer Mass for the country’s small Catholic population.

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