Pope Francis praised China’s “noble” citizens in unscripted remarks after a Mass in Mongolia. Cardinal John Tong Hon and Archbishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong sat by the Pontiff’s side as he asked Chinese Catholics to be “good Christians and good citizens.”
It was the first-ever Papal visit to Mongolia and the first time the leader of the Catholic Church has publicly mentioned China. Francis praised Mongolia’s tradition of religious tolerance and participated in an interfaith event featuring Mongolian shamans, as well as Buddhist monks, Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis, Shinto leaders, and a Russian Orthodox priest.
The Pope visited Mongolia against a backdrop of growing human rights abuses in China, and a crackdown on religion by its communist government. Nevertheless, Pope Francis extended “divine blessings of unity and peace” to President Xi Jinping via telegram prior to this arrival. There was a notable absence of criticism for the Chinese Communist Party from the Pope and no mention of its persecution of religious groups.
China is formally an atheist state but recognizes a small group of religions – Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism. The nation’s constitution promises freedom of religion, though human rights groups say this does not necessarily translate into reality.
The permitted religions are tightly controlled, and all organizations must register with the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which strictly oversees and regulates the practice of the faith. For example, religious groups may only engage in “normal” activity, but “normal” is not defined and is therefore open to arbitrary interpretation.
In the far-flung province of Xinxiang, the government is reportedly detaining an estimated one million Uighur Muslims. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is home to 12 million Muslims, but the ruling CCP does not see them as ethnically Chinese and has been accused of seeking and initiating their genocide. In 2021, CCP officials described the genocide accusation as the “lie of the century.”
China has around 200 million religious believers, representing less than 10% of the population.