Pope Francis meets with Mongolia's religious, political leaders in historic visit

Pope Francis (R) walks outside a traditional Mongolian yurt with a Catholic believer known as Mrs. Tsetsege on the premises of the Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Cathedral in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on Saturday. Photo by Ciro Fusco/EPA-EFE

Sept. 2 (UPI) -- Pope Francis met with Mongolia's bishops and priests in the capitol of Ulaanbaatar and praised the country's history of religious tolerance on Saturday as he continued his historic visit to the Asian nation.

The Catholic pontiff met with missionaries, consecrated men and women and pastoral workers inside the city's small Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul as those who couldn't get inside gathered along the street while waving Vatican flags, the Vatican's official news agency reported.

The meeting came a day after Francis became the first Pope to visit Mongolia. After a nine-and-a-half hour flight from Rome, the 86-year-old pontiff landed at Chinggis Khaan airport and was greeted by foreign minister Battsetseg Batmunkh.

Francis is making the three-day trip with a goal of engaging with the approximately 1,500 Catholics in the reclusive, former communist nation of 3.4 million amid increasing tensions with Beijing.

During the Saturday's meeting, Francis urged the Mongolian Catholic leaders to "spend their lives for the Gospel," which he described as "a beautiful way to define the missionary vocation of Christians."

He also encouraged the Catholics to entrust themselves to Jesus' mother Mary, "asking for a renewed zeal and an ardent love that tirelessly and joyfully bears witness to the Gospel."

Mongolia, which is sandwiched between Russia and China, is a multiparty democracy with one of the world's smallest Catholic populations.

The nation is overwhelmingly Buddhist and its leaders have close religious ties to the Tibetan lamas, including the Dalai Lama. But Catholics' relations with other Mongolian faith communities are good.

The Vatican noted this before the visit and says the tolerance is rooted in their ancient traditions of openness dating back to Emperor Chinggis Khaan, or Genghis Khan, the founder and first ruler of the Mongol Empire which during his reign in the 13th Century became the largest contiguous land empire in human history.

During a meeting with Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh later Saturday at the state palace, Francis again praised the country's traditions stemming from the Mongol Empire.

"The fact that the empire could embrace such distant and varied lands over the centuries bears witness to the remarkable ability of your ancestors to acknowledge the outstanding qualities of the peoples present in its immense territory and to put those qualities at the service of a common development," Francis told the president, diplomats and cultural leaders.

"This model should be valued and re-proposed in our own day," he said.