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Mongolia missioners mull challenges to religious freedom

Fostering open dialogue among religious communities may help bridge gap between constitutional ideal and practical reality
This handout photo released by Vatican Media on Sept. 1 shows people greeting Pope Francis upon his arrival at the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar

This handout photo released by Vatican Media on Sept. 1 shows people greeting Pope Francis upon his arrival at the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaanbaatar. (Handout photo/ Vatican Media/AFP)

Published: September 01, 2023 11:41 AM GMT
Updated: September 01, 2023 11:58 AM GMT

Embedded within the dynamic landscape of Mongolia lies a two-fold narrative of religious freedom set against the historical backdrop of its prohibition of Christianity in the recent past.

Within its population of 3.4 million residents, a burgeoning community of approximately 45,000 Christians is gaining ground, representing a modest yet significant 1.94 percent of the total populace.

The Christian community stands as a living testimony to the nation's religious freedom, as most Christians were baptized only after the Mongolian Revolution of 1990.

Mongolia's current constitution enshrines the principle of religious freedom, promising its citizens the right to practice their beliefs without hindrance.

However, the practical implementation of this constitutional provision reveals a stark contrast, say several missionaries working in the Buddhist-majority nation for decades.

“Here in Mongolia, we are free to do religious work inside our church. But outside, we are not allowed,” says Father Ronald Magbanua, a Filipino missionary.

"The authorities from time to time come to check our schools and orphanages, even asking our orphans if we talk about Jesus with them"

When he arrived in Mongolia in 2002, there were “approximately 40 young Catholic souls in the whole country,” recalls the 47-year-old priest.

“We now run schools and orphanages. In these places, we are still not allowed to put religious objects like crosses or images of Jesus. The worst is that our religious sisters are not allowed to wear their habits. The authorities from time to time come to check our schools and orphanages, even asking our orphans if we talk about Jesus with them,” Magbanua said.

An even graver concern — one reminiscent of the bygone era of communism — is the phenomenon of self-censorship that stifles open expression of the Christian faith among Mongolian youth.

“Some of our youth members cannot tell their parents that they want to be baptized for fear of being perceived unfavorably. Therefore some do it secretly. What happens is that they get baptized anyway and hide their faith, their Bibles and their cross,” the priest said.

His observation retells the social dynamics of the recent communist period but also mirrors the same social behaviors that happened with the ‘kakurekuristians’ in Japan four centuries ago during its ban on Christianity.

Being a Christian entails an active practice and an unwavering commitment to attending church each Sunday. In contrast, the priest said, Buddhism carries for many a nominal association, with temple visits reserved primarily for specific occasions or needs.

“The heart of this contrast lies in the differing modes of religious engagement … Christianity beckons its adherents into a realm of wholehearted participation but Buddhism on the other hand, for many, remains a spiritual umbrella, invoked selectively for certain junctures.”

Sister Nirmala Rani, a missionary nun from India, echoes the concerns voiced by the Filipino missionary, amplifying the underlying worries that ripple through their shared mission.

"Layers of scrutiny of visa applications and their unpredictable outcomes create an environment of uncertainty"

“Formally in Mongolia, every individual is entitled to the privilege of harboring their own thoughts, values and religious convictions without constraint. This entitlement encompasses the liberty to embrace or select a religion or personal belief system,” she said.

However, despite the legal safeguards of religious freedom, there are government obstacles to the registration of religious organizations, alongside the criminalization of proselytism.

As a missionary, obtaining a missionary visa poses a significant hurdle, the nun said.

Despite spending 21 years in Mongolia, she and other missionaries like her need to renew their visas on an annual basis.

“This repetitive process tends to dampen the enthusiasm of missionaries for the work we are engaged in,” she said.

The layers of scrutiny of visa applications and their unpredictable outcomes create an environment of uncertainty that dissuades religious groups from attempting to formalize their congregations in Mongolia.

Many say the restrictions stem from concerns over the preservation of Mongolia's historic spiritual heritage anchored in Buddhism, which is perceived as a fundamental cornerstone of the nation's culture and heritage.

Amid the prevailing concerns, a glimmer of optimism emerges, casting a hopeful light upon the situation.

“This free environment is not only beneficial for the Catholic community but also for the broader society"

Consolata Missionary Sister Sandra Garay works in Arvaiheer, some 430 kilometers from Ulaanbaatar. There, a modest parish that embraces around 45 to 50 members forms a close-knit community beyond the urban bounds.

Within this intimate setting, the parish serves as a hub of social engagement for the local populace. It's a space where a number of activities are implemented, tailored to cater to children and women, encompassing educational and recreational dimensions.

That is besides their regular activities of worship, religious celebrations and catechism.

While acknowledging that religions are highly regulated and there is a heavy load of paperwork to fill out, Sister Sandra points out that “this is part of Mongolian life, where every aspect is highly regulated.”

“We follow all the requirements respectfully. As for the Catholics in Mongolia, they do enjoy the constitutionally assured freedom of religion, affording them the liberty to wholeheartedly practice their faith,” she added.

This encompasses their engagement in religious practices, irrespective of their personal belief system.

“This free environment is not only beneficial for the Catholic community but also for the broader society. We therefore have the opportunity to baptize individuals and welcome new members into our Church,” the nun said.

Mongolia may indeed face, to various degrees, the intricate challenge of reconciling its commitment to religious freedom with the preservation of its cultural and spiritual heritage. But certainly, efforts to bridge the gap between the constitutional ideal and the practical reality could involve fostering open dialogue between religious communities.

"A subtle edge exists when comparing the reception of Christianity to other belief systems"

Logan Fuller, a 19-year-old member of the Church of Christ from Minnesota, arrived in Ulaanbaatar two years ago as a volunteer.

Logan said his mission involves "sharing" than being a language teacher of 'American conversational English' in various local schools.

However, beneath the surface of these language lessons lies a profound connection to the faith that binds him to his home congregation, an association he is keenly aware of as he navigates the dynamics of belief in a new environment.

“In our Church of Christ downtown, we have some 2,000 devoted followers,” which is already larger than the Mongolian Catholic community.

Buddhism has "shaped the spiritual landscape for generations and keeps in a corner so to speak all other faiths," he said.

But he notices a subtle edge exists when comparing the reception of Christianity to other belief systems.

“We for example don’t wear a cross. But I also feel there is a generational divide. The older generation tends to be more judgmental when it comes to embracing Christianity,” he observed.

Yet, to Logan’s young mind, promising progress looms ahead.

“The younger generation is far more open, receptive, and accommodating to the introduction of different belief systems. I noticed this personally with my young students. The evolution I perceive within the younger demographic is a testimony to the gradual but steady transformation occurring in the local perception of the Christian faith,” he said.

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