VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is traveling to Mongolia at the end of the summer, a visit that will be a first for a pontiff and one rich in geopolitical significance given its proximity to Russia and China.
The Vatican on Saturday confirmed the Aug. 31-Sept. 4 trip to the landlocked U.S-allied country sandwiched between Russia and China, two countries popes have never visited.
The visit comes as Francis is trying to toe a diplomatic line in his relations with both countries: With Moscow, Francis is seeking an opening for a peace envoy to nudge Russia and Ukraine to negotiations to end the war. With China, the Vatican has seen its landmark 2018 accord over bishop nominations violated, with Beijing making unilateral decisions.
Francis will be ministering to a tiny Christian community in Mongolia, part of his focus on visiting far-flung Catholics on the peripheries of the church’s main centers of influence. According to statistics by the Catholic nonprofit Aid to the Church in Need, Mongolia is 53% Tantric Buddhist, 39% atheist, 3% Muslim, 3% Shaman and 2% Christian.
Mongolia has strived to maintain its political and economic independence from both its Soviet-era patron Moscow — which supplies virtually all of its energy needs — and rising regional power China, which buys more than 90% of its mining exports, mainly coal and copper.
At the same time, many people in Mongolia refer to the United States as their country’s “third neighbor” in recognition of the many varied exchanges between the two that help counter both Russian and Chinese influence.