ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia -- Pope Francis on Saturday praised Mongolia's tradition of religious freedom dating to the times of its founder, Genghis Khan, as he opened the first-ever papal visit to the Asian nation with a word of encouragement to its tiny Catholic flock.
Francis met with President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh inside a traditional Mongolian ger, or round yurt, set up inside the state palace and wrote a message in the guest book that he was visiting "a country young and ancient, modern and rich of tradition" as a pilgrim of peace.
Francis is in Mongolia to minister to one of the world's newest and smallest Catholic communities -- around 1,450 Mongolians are Catholic -- and make a diplomatic foray into a region where the Holy See has long had troubled relations, with Russia to the north and China to the south.
While Christianity has been present in the region for hundreds of years, the Catholic Church has only had a sanctioned presence in Mongolia since 1992 after the country abandoned its Soviet-allied communist government and enshrined religious freedom in its constitution.
While Catholicism is tolerated and legal, foreign missionaries working here lament that the government restricts their numbers and treats the church as a nongovernmental organization -- limitations the Holy See is hoping will be lifted with a comprehensive bilateral agreement.
In his remarks, Francis praised Mongolia's tradition of religious liberty, noting that such tolerance existed even during the period of the Mongol Empire's vast expansion over much of the world. At its height, the empire stretched as far west as Hungary, becoming the largest contiguous land empire in world history.
Now, the landlocked nation sandwiched between Russia and China is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with traditional links to Tibet's leading lamas, including the Dalai Lama.
"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 in remarks at the state palace.
"This model should be valued and reproposed in our own day," he said.
Referring to the 13th-century period of relative political stability within the Mongol Empire that allowed trade and travel to flourish, Francis called for such a period of fraternity and peace to take root today and spread peace throughout the region.
"May heaven grant that today, on this earth devastated by countless conflicts, there be a renewal, respectful of international laws, of the condition of what was once the pax mongolica, that is the absence of conflicts," he said.
Khurelsukh also referred to the "pax mongolica" in his remarks, saying that same spirit still guides Mongolia's efforts to be a peaceful, multilateral player on the world stage.
"Achievements of pax mongolica have created the solid grounds for the development of mutual respect between different nations of the world, cherishing each other's values and identities, enabling peaceful coexistence of various civilizations," he said.
Later in the day, Francis met with bishops and the missionaries who have cultivated the Catholic faith here for the past three decades, presiding over a prayer in the ger-shaped St. Peter and Paul cathedral in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. On the altar sat a delicate wooden statue of the Madonna, which was found by a Mongolese woman in a landfill and now is a symbol of the church in the country.
Information for this article was contributed by Zhang Weiqun of The Associated Press.