But why is this story poorly known?
The reasons are first of all internal to Christianity. The faith which spread in these first centuries in the East was carried by these Syriac Christians who had a different theological tradition than the great Christian denominations of the Mediterranean basin. It is the figure of an ancient patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius (381-451), who is at the origin.
When the Christian faith becomes more and more visible and official, Christians try to clarify their assertions, particularly concerning the figure of Christ. If God and man are indeed true, how do these two identities coexist? Heated debates take place, mixed with misunderstandings and geopolitical issues. Nestorius was eventually removed from office and exiled far away for his positions on the issue. Thus was born the Nestorian branch of the Christian Churches which moved further and further away from the Roman sphere of influence.
A painful story which, after more than fifteen centuries of mutual incomprehension, found the beginnings of reconciliation when, after intense theological exchanges, mutual recognition finally took place at the end of the 1980s between the Catholic Church of John Paul II and the Assyrian Apostolic Church of Patriarch Dinkha IV.
Why are local Christian communities so small?
Ardent missionaries, the Nestorian Christians quickly spread the Christian faith. In China, in 520 their presence is already attested. In the 8th century, Sergianos, a Uighur prince, and Sartaq, a Mongol prince, were also Christians. Christianity continues to come into contact with the great civilizations of this region of the world. In the 13th century, the Mongol rulers, working closely with these Christians, particularly at court, granted them various privileges in their territories. During this period, Roman Catholic missionaries also arrived in this space.
But this golden age of Christian expansion came to an abrupt end, in 1368, with the event of the Ming dynasty. Little by little, the Nestorian dioceses died out one after the other. And today only a few archaeological traces remain testifying to their existence. As for Mongolia, it was not until the end of the 20th century that small Christian communities were formed again.
Today in this country of barely three million inhabitants, the Catholic community has around 1,400 faithful gathered in eight parishes, notably in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. A Church accompanied by different missionary congregations, with around twenty-five priests and around forty religious men and women and consecrated lay people. A Church which has only two Mongolian priests. Recently, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Mgr Giorgio Marengo, the current head of this community by his title of Apostolic Prefect since 2020. A strong sign for this young Church is the appointment of this youngest cardinal, barely 48 years old. .
What are the stakes of the pope’s visit?
Pope Francis is clearly charting Vatican diplomacy that goes against worldly habits. From Albania to Mongolia via the Central African Republic, he enjoys these trips which remind everyone that he is not a politician or a sales representative. It is first of all at the service of a universal message, that of the Gospel.
By visiting this country bordering Russia and China, the Pope also shows his interest in what is happening there, in this part of the world. While on both sides, dialogue with the Russian and Chinese political and religious authorities remains complicated, this visit to a land of essentially Buddhist tradition testifies to a desire to continue its quest for fraternity lived through respect and dialogue. , to resist the calculations of one and the other. Especially since the daily life of the Christian community is not easy, under permanent control of the country’s authorities.
As a sign of what the pope is undertaking in this visit, the inauguration of a House of Mercy in the Bayangol district of 150,000 inhabitants, on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, will speak volumes. It is a social center for victims of domestic violence, the homeless and migrants. In a former school of the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, this three-story building bears witness to a pastoral support for the lives of this people where domestic violence is an all too common practice and where the rural exodus drains many poor families towards the capital.