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Missionaries of the Steppes

Опубликовано в Transitions Online, 10 September 2003.

Papal visit or no, Mongolia hosts a fast-growing and diverse array of Christian churches.

MOSCOW, Russia—For most of this year, Roman Catholic circles buzzed over the pope’s trip to Mongolia.

John Paul II has ministered to his flock in many remote places during his 25-year pontificate, but, perhaps, none as remote from the Catholic mainstream as this thinly populated, overwhelmingly Buddhist land.

With the explanation, «Our Lord does not want it,» the Vatican announced at the end of August that the pope’s visit was called off, denying the 200 or so native-born Mongolian Catholics a chance to meet their spiritual leader, and denying, perhaps, some Mongolians from launching more verbal salvos against the many Christian groups who preach, proselytize, and do charity work in the country today.

It’s the paucity of Christians that makes Mongolia a lure for missionaries from across the spectrum of Christian practice. For them, the Central Asian republic in the throes of rapid social transformation is ripe for new converts. And that is also the reason many Mongolians view Christianity as a real threat to their national culture.


The first Christians appeared in Mongolia as early as the 12th century. Some of the Mongolian tribes professed the Nestorian branch of Christianity, which had made inroads as far east as China. The first Western European Christians, members of Franciscan missions headed by John de Plano Carpini and William de Rubruquis, visited Mongolia in the 13th century, and in the next century Monte Corvino, also a Franciscan monk, translated the New Testament into Mongolian.

Even the adoption of Buddhism as the official state religion in the 16th century could not stop the missionaries’ activity. Progress, however, was slow. The report of an early-20th-century Swedish mission mentions a Mongol named Ghenden whom they managed to convert. After some years the missionaries were happy to announce that his wife also adopted Christianity.

Mongolia remained a resolutely Buddhist land. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 747 Buddhist monasteries and temples and about 100,000 monks—almost a third of the male population. Then, the advent of a communist government backed by the USSR brought widespread destruction of Buddhist structures and institutions and an atmosphere of hostility toward religion in general.

A process of religious revival started in Mongolia immediately after the peaceful change of the regime in 1990. Buddhists, Shamanists, Muslims, and Christians are trying to fill the ideological vacuum the imploding communist system left behind. For many young Mongols, Christianity in particular—as something new, little known, and Western—became linked with democracy, freedom, and progress.

Official statistics do not count the number of Christians in the country. By most outside reckonings, they now number somewhere in the range of 10,000-20,000. The 2002 U.S. State Department’s Religious Freedom Report estimates the number of Christians in the largest city, Ulaanbaatar, at 24,000, but it does not specify how many of them are Mongolian nationals.

Christian churches and organizations quickly took advantage when barriers to entry fell in 1990. That year, the International Bible Society founded a Mongolian branch. Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, different Protestant denominations, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists began to arrive. Three months after the democratic revolution, a Christian group entered Mongolia as tourists. Having been isolated from the world for so long, the Mongols were eager to learn about anything from the outside world, even things they had never heard of. On 10 June 1990, two Mongolian believers were baptized.

Today, a visitor to Ulaanbaatar often encounters smiling people who hand out leaflets—a popular one is titled “Who is Jesus Christ?”—and invite passers-by to their meetings. Others distribute copies of an evangelical paper called Horvoogiin Gerel (Light of the World).

“Christianity brings values to our country that Buddhism never did and never will,” Javklan, a businessman in his 40s, told The Weekend Australian. “The traditions of Christianity are what have helped make Western civilization so dominant. The values of mutual respect, of caring for others, of bringing progress and good to society are all necessary for Mongolia to develop.»

Some denominations take the link between Christianity and democracy literally. During the 1996 parliamentary election campaign, Mongolian Baptists met weekly to pray that God might help the coalition of the National Democratic and Social Democratic parties. The meetings culminated the night before the election in an open-air rally in a central Ulaanbaatar square. The coalition went on to win the hard-fought election.

By far the most receptive audience for Christian missionaries is urban young people. According to research by a scholar of religion S. Tsedendamba, 68 percent of Christians were under the age of 30 in 1999. Many Mongols take this phenomenon as a serious threat to the national identity, traditions, and culture. Some newspapers have used the term zagalmaitan, «crusader,» in reference to Christians, suggesting that they come with the intent of ruining Mongolian culture and Buddhism.


“Young people are our strength, our future,” Rev. Wenceslaw Padilla, the superior of the Catholic mission in Ulaanbaatar, told the Catholic Voice in 2002. Padilla was ordained as Mongolia’s first bishop in late August 2003, around the same time the country’s first Catholic cathedral was consecrated.

Pope John Paul wrote Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the Holy See’s representative visiting Mongolia, apologizing that he could not be present for these events. He said the new cathedral and bishop would help «consolidate the spiritual edifice being built up by the ‘little flock’ of a young missionary Church, which is growing in confidence,» the Zenit Catholic news agency reported.

The 83-year-old pope’s frailty probably contributed to the cancellation of the grueling journey to Central Asia. Another reason may have been the Vatican’s failure to break the Russian Orthodox Church’s longstanding opposition to a papal trip to Russia. The pope has been to Central Asia once before, in 2001, when he visited Kazakhstan, but has never visited Russia, and hoped to do so in conjunction with the Mongolia journey.

Had the Russian trip gone through, it would have been the pope’s second visit to an Orthodox country this year. In June, he made a brief stop in Banja Luka, in the Serbian entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina, to beatify a Croatian Catholic activist. Catholic visitors made up the bulk of his audience there.

On 11 September, the pope will begin a four-day trip to Catholic Slovakia, where he can count on being welcomed with joy, and not a few tears, by large crowds.

«This visit will surely be his last in Slovakia because of his age and his health,» Slovakian Archbishop Jan Sokol told the Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. «It’s bittersweet—but such is life.»

One of the secrets of the Christians’ popularity in Mongolia is their concern for the lives of the poor and abused in local communities. Official statistics say that one in three families in Mongolia is poor. Over a third of all children subsist on one meal a day, and the problem of street children is growing: abandoned or runaway kids live rough, often in city sewers, stealing or selling their bodies to survive. Missionaries offer these children a new start. Since 1997, the Catholic Verbist center in Ulaanbaatar has offered assistance to nearly 120 children aged 2-15.

The Verbist center also administers to needy adults, providing baths, food, and clean clothes to about 200 homeless people every week.

Children and adults often first visit a church or mission out of an interest in Western culture. There they meet sincere and attractive people, who are interested in them and their problems and, in many cases, can converse in fluent Mongolian.

Although it counts just a couple of hundred adherents in Mongolia, the Roman Catholic Church is generous with humanitarian aid, giving $100,000 to children’s homes every year. In 2002 the Vatican donated $350,000 to cattle-breeders who lost their livestock to severe cold and drought.

In the past year, Zenit reported, the country’s nine Catholic priests baptized 20 new Catholics.


Some 20 Christian denominations are active in Mongolia. In the absence of official figures, estimates of their size are speculative, but it appears that Protestant churches are the most active and widespread. Ulaanbaatar’s Russian Orthodox church ministers primarily to the city’s Russians, although two Mongolians were baptized several years ago. The Orthodox Church maintains a good relationship with the Buddhist majority. Indeed, both churches are nervous about losing influence in their respective strongholds; in Russia, the Orthodox Church is alarmed at the spread of other Christian churches, including Roman Catholicism.

Christians are not only active in the cities. The Mormon church, for instance, has 12 branches in cities and provinces across the country.

To operate legally, a religious group must register with the Justice Ministry and get permission from local authorities to conduct its activities. The State Department’s Religious Freedom Report alleges that some religious organizations have been obstructed or asked for bribes by local officials.

Christian churches also encounter problems finding places for worship. Most suitable locations are state-owned, and it is illegal for them to be used for Christian worship. Few churches can afford to acquire or build their own buildings.

In some respects, Christianity is outstripping Buddhism, the present or ancestral religion of nearly 95 percent of Mongolians. The institution of Buddhism was nearly liquidated under the communist regime. Just a handful of monasteries survived the depredations of the 1930s. As a result, there are few educated monks (lamas), religious education is haphazard, and many Mongols lack a basic understanding of Buddhism. All this may lead some Mongolians to experiment with other spiritual paths, and except for Islam—restricted mainly to the country’s Kazakhs in the northwest, and survivals of shamanist practice—various versions of the Christian faith are the main alternative today.

The state holds Buddhism in special esteem—President N. Bagabandi said that he considers it an important tool for the revival of national culture and a means for addressing many of the people’s psychological and social problems—and a substantial revival was underway in 1990. Even though more than 150 monasteries were reopened and Buddhist schools and colleges were founded, there still is a dearth of qualified teachers, and few Buddhist texts have been published in colloquial Mongolian versions.

Some evangelical Christians charge that Buddhism is to blame for Mongolia’s poverty and backwardness. Such words do not endear them to the majority of Mongolians. Other Christian faiths are on better terms with the Buddhists; Russian Orthodox representatives have met the Hambo-lama D. Choizhamts, the head of the Buddhist faith in Mongolia. But much suspicion remains. A popular journalist, D. Bazarvaan, has said that if the Mongols don’t control the spread of foreign religions, Mongolia will be «lost» in 30 years.

That is a very dire forecast. Such sentiments may reflect not so much a real threat of a struggle for the souls of the Mongolian people, as fear of the future. The country has lurched from one traumatic change to another in the past few decades, so no wonder many Mongols view the arrival of an aggressively evangelistic faith with suspicion.

The time of Buddhism’s unique and dominating place in Mongolian life is definitely past. Paradoxically, that may be its salvation. Competition with Christianity may force Buddhists to embrace reform, become more outward-looking, and modern. In today’s world that may be the only way to preserve Mongolia’s culture.

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