With fewer than 1,500 Catholics in Mongolia, Pope Francis' upcoming visit brings attention to the long and complex history of the minority religious group

A statue of Gengis Khan near the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Pope Francis is set to make the first-ever visit to Mongolia, a country with fewer than 1,500 Catholics, all of whom have come to the faith since 1992. But the pope's visit is a reminder that the country has a long and complex history with Christianity, among many other faiths.

Mongolia has only 3.4 million people, and at least 87.4% are Buddhists. The small Catholic community came into existence after this landlocked country, bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south, began to abandon its communist ideology and embraced different religions. At that time, it also restored diplomatic relations with the Vatican and welcomed Catholic missionaries.

But Catholicism has been known to the Mongols since the early 13th century. As a scholar of religions in Asia, I am aware that Nestorianism, a Christian tradition commonly known as the Church of the East, reached the periphery of the Mongolian plateau as early as the eighth century, long before the Mongols became active in that area. Several old tribes in the Mongolian steppes were converted to Nestorianism around 1000 C.E. 

The Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire was founded by Genghis Khan in 1206 after he conquered all the other nomadic tribes on the Mongolian Plateau. Later on, the empire extended from Mongolia to the Eastern Mediterranean regions.

Initially the Mongols practised a Shamanic religion, worshipping the God Tengri. However, to be able to rule all conquered subjects across the vast empire, Genghis Khan issued the "Great Yasa," a regulation allowing people under his regime the freedom to freely practise their faiths. Under the Mongol Empire, people practised Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The conquered tribes included Nestorian Christians, who believed that Jesus Christ had both human and divine natures and rejected that Mary was the mother of God. Christian women dominated the inner court of the Mongol Empire following their marriages with several Mongol Khans.

The messengers of the papacy

The Mongol conquest paved the way for long-distance cultural, religious and commercial exchanges across the vast Eurasian continent. For the first time Catholic missionaries were able to travel along the land route to East Asia.

Genghis Khan and his sons launched a series of military campaigns in Central Asia and West Asia, conquering vast land across the Eurasian continent and reaching the borders of modern-day Hungary and Turkey.

During the conquest, the Mongols often spared many Christians in Central and West Asia, even though they killed those who resisted the Mongol rule.

The conquest shocked many in the Latin world in Europe and Muslims in the Middle East. In 1241, soon after the Mongol troops invaded Hungary and Romania, Pope Innocent IV sent Catholic missionaries, including an Italian Franciscan priest called John of Plano Carpini, to the Mongol court seeking peace.

In 1246, on orders of the pope, Carpini visited the Mongol court and urged the new ruler of the Mongol Empire, Güyük Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson, to convert to Catholicism. Güyük Khan instead asked that he summon the pope and other European rulers to swear allegiance to him.

Catholic missionaries could not find a way to convert the Mongols but continued their efforts with the successive rulers.

In 1248 a Franciscan priest named William of Rubruck, a companion of French King Louis IX, met a Dominican priest, Andrew of Longjumeau, during his visit to Jerusalem. At that time, Louis IX was leading the crusades against Muslims in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and William of Rubruck was fascinated with Andrew of Longjumeau's suggestion of building an alliance with the Mongols against the Muslims.

In 1253, William of Rubruck visited the Mongol court in Karakorum to urge Genghis Khan's grandson Möngke Khan to convert. Möngke Khan instead handed him a letter for Louis IX in which he not only refused to convert to Christianity but threatened to invade the heartland of Europe if the Europeans did not accept the Mongols' eternal God, Tengri.

Catholicism and Nestorianism

William of Rubruck's visit did not bring any immediate results in terms of conversions, but it left a more far lasting impact.

Before his visit there was not much communication between Catholic missionaries and Nestorians, but William of Rubruck was able to chronicle the activities of the Nestorian community within the Mongol Empire. The visits of Catholic missionaries also prompted many Mongol Nestorians to start going on pilgrimages to West Asia as a way to expand their influence beyond their comfort zone under the Mongol Empire.

In 1287 a Nestorian monk, Rabban Bar Sauma, embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Khanbaliq, near modern Beijing. Later Sauma's student Rabban Markos became a patriarch with a title Yahballaha III, or the chief of the Nestorian Church, in the Mongol-ruled Ilkhanate Empire in modern-day Iran.

At the same time, the Catholic missionaries also started to expand their influence in Central Asia. In 1307 a Franciscan priest, John of Montecorvino, built a Catholic church in Khanbaliq and became the patriarch under the order of Pope Clement V. He had converted about 6,000 people in Mongolia by 1313.

Religious revivals in Mongolia

Over the next few centuries, the religious landscape in Mongolia continued to change, depending on who was ruling the region.

Many Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism during the later part of the 13th-century reign of the Kublai Khan, another grandson of Genghis Khan, who favored the religion. But after 1368, when the Mongols withdrew from central China and left Khanbaliq, the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism was suppressed. The Nestorian community gradually disappeared and never revived again.

However, under the Qing dynasty that ruled China and Mongolia in the 17th century, Buddhism was revived. But again, in the 20th century Mongolian politics changed drastically when the country adopted communism following the Soviet Union's intervention, and the practice of Buddhism declined again.

After Mongolia became a democracy in 1992, Mongols were allowed to freely practise their faiths again: Buddhism began to flourish, and Catholic missionaries arrived in the country and built a small Catholic community.

When the pope visits this complex religious terrain, his visit will be significant from the geopolitical and religious perspective: In June 2023, the pope's peace envoy visited Russia as part of international peacemaking efforts. But no pope has ever visited its other close neighbour, China, which does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Overall, I argue that the pope's groundbreaking visit to Mongolia might send important signals in East Asia and, in particular, to the much larger Catholic community in China.The Conversation

Huaiyu Chen is Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.