By Philip Pullella
ULAANBAATAR (Reuters) -In an unprecedented event, Pope Francis and just about the entire Catholic population of a country were in the same room when he presided at a Mass in Mongolia’s capital on Sunday.
The Mass in Ulaanbaatar’s Steppe Arena was the religious highlight of the pope’s trip to visit the Catholic community of just 1,450. Most of Mongolia’s population of about 3.3 million are Buddhists.
Most of Mongolia’s nine parishes are in the capital, but one in a remote area has only about 30 members and Church officials said they expected everyone who could make it to attend.
Many Mongolians still live a nomadic tradition to graze their animals and in his homily, the pope used the image to make his point.
“All of us are God’s nomads, pilgrims in search of happiness, wayfarers thirsting for love,” he said, adding that the Christian faith quenched that thirst.
Several Buddhist monks in their saffron robes attended the Mass, which was conducted in Mongolian, English and Italian.
Francis, who leaves for Rome on Monday after inaugurating a Church charity and health centre, began his day at an inter-religious service where he called himself one of the “humble heirs” of ancient schools of wisdom and quoted the Buddha.
There, sharing a theatre stage with a dozen other religious representatives, he urged all religions to live in harmony and shun ideological fundamentalism that foments violence.
Since he started the trip, Francis has praised religious freedom in Mongolia. The landlocked country borders China, which human rights groups say represses religious freedom.
In unscripted comments at the end of the Mass, the pope sent greetings to China, making another overture to the communist country to ease restrictions on religion.
‘ANCIENT SCHOOLS OF WISDOM’
The inter-religious meeting was attended by leaders representing Mongolian Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, evangelical and Orthodox Christians, Mormons, Hindus, Shintos, Bahais and shamans.
“Brothers and sisters, today we are meeting together as the humble heirs of ancient schools of wisdom. In our encounter with one another, we want to share the great treasure we have received, for the sake of enriching a humanity so often led astray on its journey by the myopic pursuit of profit and material comfort,” he said.
Francis, 86, quoted from a writings of the Buddha that says “the wise man rejoices in giving”, noting it was similar to Jesus’ saying “It is more blessed to give than to receive”.
Conservative Catholics, such as Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, have lambasted the pope for attending such gatherings, calling them “a supermarket of religions” that diminishes the status of the Catholic Church.
But the pope repeated that he put great importance in “ecumenical, inter-religious and cultural dialogue”. He said dialogue did not mean “to gloss over difference” but to seek understanding and enrichment.
He condemned “narrowness, unilateral imposition, fundamentalism and ideological constraint”, saying they destroy fraternity, fuel tensions and compromise peace.
“There can be no mixing, then, of religious beliefs and violence, of holiness and oppression, of religious traditions and sectarianism,” Francis said.
“This is a very important, meaningful meeting,” said one of the attendees, Buddhist Monk Altankhuu Tserenjav of the Zuun Khuree Dashichoiling Monastery in Ulaanbaatar.
“He is a religious leader of the world, for us like a Dalai Lama, so I really respect and welcome him,” he said.
Mongolia has seen a revival of Tibetan Buddhism since the collapse of the Soviet-backed Communist government in 1990, and the Dalai Lama is regarded as its main spiritual leader.
However, China has repeatedly put pressure on Mongolia not to allow the 88-year-old exiled Tibetan leader to visit, branding him a dangerous separatist.
(Reporting by Philip PullellaEditing by Lincoln Feast, Edwina Gibbs, William Mallard and Frances Kerry)