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Pope Francis begins low-key visit to Catholics in Buddhist Mongolia

By Philip Pullella

ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA - Pope Francis, who is sometimes received as a superstar on trips abroad, arrived in Mongolia on Friday to the joy of its tiny Catholic community but with his presence barely making a ripple in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country.

The plane carrying Francis and his entourage landed after a night flight of nearly 10 hours, and the pope, who is 86 and in need of a wheelchair, was resting for the remainder of the day.

His first engagement is on Saturday, when he attends an official welcoming ceremony and addresses government leaders and diplomats.

At the airport, a woman in traditional dress offered the pope solid yogurt, a customary Mongolian gesture of welcome, before he was wheeled past an honour guard wearing ornate blue and red uniforms and holding rifles.

Apart from Mongolian and Vatican flags on poles on the highway, and traffic backed up by the passing of his motorcade, there were barely any signs that the pope was in town.

One of the few banners along his motorcade route into the modern capital surrounded by a mostly barren expanse was held up by Catholics from Vietnam, a country once hostile to Western religions but which recently upgraded its relations with the Vatican.

Well-wishers greeted the pope, some putting on a brief song and dance performance, when he arrived at his destination in the city centre.

"I'm so happy to see the pope," said 47-year-old Catholic devotee Otgon Zesenjav. "I'm very thankful for his visit. We have been waiting for this moment for such a long time. He shook my hand twice. I'm so excited."

There are only 1,450 Catholics in Mongolia, administered by Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, who started working in the country more than 20 years ago as a young priest.


'IMPROVING RELATIONS'


Visiting places where Catholics are a minority is part of Francis's policy of drawing attention to people and problems in what he has called the peripheries of society and of the world. He has not visited most of the capitals of Western Europe.

Talking to reporters on the plane from Rome, Francis said he was looking forward to visiting even just one part of the vast country, said it had a "a small population but with a great culture".

Francis, who had an intestinal operation in June, looked relatively fit as he walked through the reporters' section of the plane, leaning on his cane and stopping to chat.

As is customary, Francis, who besides being the leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics is also a head of state, wired greetings to the leaders of each country he flew over, including China, with which the Vatican has had difficult relations.

The Holy See has full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the democratic island that Beijing claims as its own, while China’s Catholics have long been split between a state-backed official church and an underground flock loyal to the Pope.

Francis, in his message to Chinese President Xi Jinping, said he had good wishes for all the people of China and assured the president of his prayers for the "wellbeing of the nation".

A spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, Wang Wenbin, said the pope's blessing reflected friendship and goodwill, noting that China and the Vatican had maintained communication in recent years.

"China is willing to continue to work with the opposite side to hold constructive dialogue, enhance understanding, build mutual trust and advance the process of improving relations between the two sides," Wang said.

Francis will preside over several religious events before he leaves on Monday, the centrepiece being a Mass in the Steppe Arena on Sunday.

He will also attend an inter-religious service and inaugurate a charity centre to help the needy, regardless of their religion.