VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis will make an Aug 31-Sept 4 trip to Mongolia, one of the most far-flung places he has ever visited and which has only about 1,300 Catholics but is strategically significant for the Roman Catholic Church because of its proximity to China.
The Vatican announced the trip in a brief statement on Saturday (June 3), saying it was being made at the invitation of the country's president and Catholic leaders. Details would be announced in the next few weeks, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.
Last August, Francis named Archbishop Giorgio Marengo, an Italian, the first cardinal to be based in Mongolia, where he is the Catholic Church's administrator.
Marengo was in Rome last month and met with the pope to discuss the trip.
Francis first spoke of the possibility of going to Mongolia in a conversation with reporters aboard the papal plane returning from a trip to Africa in February.
According to Fides, the news agency of the Vatican's missionary activities, there are about 1,300 baptized Catholics in Mongolia among a population of about 3.3 million people.
According to the US State Department, about 60 per cent of the population identifies as religious while the remainder has no religious identity.
Among those who express a religious identity, 87.1 per cent identify as Buddhist, 5.4 per cent as Muslim, 4.2 per cent as Shamanist, 2.2 per cent as Christian, and 1.1 per cent as followers of other religions.
Although the number of Catholics in Mongolia is smaller that most individual parish churches in many countries, the country is significant for the Vatican.
It has a long border and close ties with China, where the Vatican is trying to improve the situation of Catholics in the communist country.
Mongolia, once known as Outer Mongolia, was part of China until 1921, when it achieved independence with the help of the then Soviet Union. Inner Mongolia remained part of China.
Visiting places where Catholics are a minority is also part of Francis' policy of drawing attention to people and problems in what he has called the peripheries of society and of the world.
He still has not visited most of the capitals of Western Europe in his ten years as head of the 1.3 billion-member Church.
Francis is due to visit Portugal from Aug 2-6 to attend the World Youth Day in Lisbon and visit the Shrine of Fatima. He has said he said he would probably go to India next year.