Pope arrives on first visit to Mongolia

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Pope Francis arrived in Mongolia on Friday morning to encourage one of the world’s smallest and newest Catholic communities.

It’s the first time a pope has visited the landlocked Asian country and comes at a time when the Vatican’s relations with Mongolia’s two powerful neighbors, Russia and China, are once again strained.

Francis arrived in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar after an overnight flight passing through Chinese airspace, affording the pontiff a rare opportunity to send a note of greetings to President Xi Jinping. Vatican protocol calls for the pope to send such greetings whenever he flies over a foreign country.

In his message to Xi, Francis expressed “greetings of good wishes to your excellency and the people of China.”

“Assuring you of my prayers for the well being of the nation, I invoke upon all of you the divine blessings of unity and peace,” Francis said.

Despite strains in the relationship, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wen bin said the greeting showed “friendliness and goodwill.”

“China is willing to continue to walk in the same direction with the Vatican, conduct constructive dialogues, enhance understanding, accumulate mutual trust, and promote the process of improving the relationship of the two sides,” Wang said at a daily briefing.

Upon arrival, Francis, who uses a wheelchair, was met on the tarmac by helmeted honor guards along with Mongolia’s foreign minister and was offered a taste of dried yogurt from a woman in traditional dress, in a sign of welcome. He made no public comments. Along with priests and others gathered on the tarmac, several dozen watched his arrival from the airport terminal.

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