ROME – A group of Chinese Catholics who traveled to see Pope Francis in Mongolia said Saturday they had to invent excuses for making the trip, and were still afraid of being discovered, but were nonetheless enthusiastic to see the pontiff so close to home.

One man who spoke on behalf of the group asked to remain anonymous for fear of government backlash after returning home.

Speaking to journalists, the man said there are several groups of Chinese Catholics in Mongolia for Pope Francis’s visit, and that there are around a hundred in his own group. Though he didn’t know exactly how many would come, he said “there will be many,” with others coming from “all over the country.”

The man said they came to Mongolia because “we want to see our religious leader,” and that they had wanted to travel to Portugal to see Pope Francis while he was there for World Youth Day at the beginning of August, but “it didn’t work out.”

Asked if it was dangerous for them to be in Mongolia for the papal visit, the man said “yes,” and that “we have a lot of people who have been rejected because of government control. We might get investigated we when we get back, but I think God will help us.”

On what the consequences of a potential government investigation might be, the man said, “I don’t know,” but that seeing the pope is worth it, because for him, the pope means “faith.”

He spoke at the official welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis at the presidential palace in Ulaanbaatar, the first official event on the pope’s itinerary in Mongolia, after which he held a private meeting with President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh and gave a public address to national civil authorities.

Pope Francis is currently making a 4-day visit to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. His arrival Friday made him the first pontiff to ever set foot in Mongolia, which is bordered by China to the south and Russia to the north.

The visit is the closest a pope has ever come to China or Russia, with whom the Vatican has had a tenuous relationship that Francis has strenuously sought to heal in order to ensure the Catholic faith’s presence in the rapidly growing East.

Prior to the pope’s arrival in Mongolia, reports circulated stating that while Chinese authorities agreed to allow the papal ITA Airways flight carrying the pontiff to fly over China’s airspace en route to Ulaanbaatar, they have barred Catholic bishops and faithful from the mainland from traveling to Mongolia for the papal visit.

The remarks of the Chinese Catholics who were present at Pope Francis’s backs up these reports.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni, who prior to the pope’s departure said Catholics from both Russia and China, as well as other surrounding countries, were expected to attend the pope’s public Mass Sunday afternoon, declined to comment about the reports, but said Catholics from China “will be present” for the pope’s Mass.

Catholic pilgrims from Hong Kong also present at the pope’s official welcome ceremony voiced their excitement to see Pope Francis, as well as their hope that the pope’s visit would open a door with Chinese authorities.

Speaking to Crux, pilgrim Amy Chan said she thinks the pope’s visit to Mongolia “will bring a good start with the Chinese government…because the pope never talks politics and he’s a very sincere person, and he always cares for the poor.”

“Maybe on a starting point like that, the Chinese government won’t be so resistant to Christianity. I hope that one day the Chinese government will open the door for Christianity to spread in China,” she said, voicing her belief that the visit to Mongolia will help.

Asked if Chinese authorities are more open to Francis because of his emphasis on dialogue, Chan said, “We can guess, but then if they accept the pope’s visit to Mongolia, this is already a first step to show their sincerity to accept the pope to come to China and maybe someday to spread Christianity in China.”

Chan is part of a Catholic group from Hong Kong making an official pilgrimage to Mongolia, visiting various churches for prayer and Mass. Saturday was the final day of their pilgrimage, and they arranged the schedule so that they could see Pope Francis prior to their departure.

In comments to Crux, Father Ambrose Mong, a priest helping to lead the group, said he sees the pope’s visit to Mongolia as a “move to the peripheries, to the margins,” and as a step away from a “Eurocentric” view of the faith.

“Mongolia is as far as you can go, and this is the closest to China he can get so far, so I think it opens the door and the pope is concerned not just about the center of Catholicism, but also outside of the Eurocentric understanding that we have of Christianity, that Christianity is a universal religion, reaching out to the minorities,” he said.

The fact that the pope came so far to visit less than 2,000 Catholics, he said, shows “his concern for the minorities, that the Gospel has to be universal.”

Mong voiced his belief that the pope’s South American roots have given him “a very strong concern for us who are non-European who are Catholics.”

“He’s also very concerned about the poor and developing countries,” he said, saying he believes Pope Francis has “a dream of going to China.”

“I think he’s obsessed with going to China, and this is the closest that he can get. I hope that China will open up to him,” he said.

Mong voiced his belief that the pope’s approach of dialogue on points of mutual agreement rather than getting into politics is helpful in this regard, saying, “It’s the only way. We cannot confront anymore; confrontation doesn’t work anymore. We don’t have this Cold War mentality.”

Dialogue and openness are “so important, especially to the other, to people that are very different from us, openness to other cultures and other religions as well,” he said, saying, “We have only one planet, one world, we need to work together.”

“We are going through a very difficult period with this tension between the US and China, everything is politicized,” he said, saying the pope’s presence so close to home “gives hope. The message is hope, we hope for a better future for ourselves and for our children too.”

Dona Wen, another member of the group, said Catholics in Hong Kong enjoy flexibility with their faith, and that the Church in general “is free, we have freedom.”

A member of the Focolare movement, Wen said that while they often meet with Pope Francis in Rome, “It’s very precious that we can meet him in Mongolia, it’s so different.”

“It’s easier than meeting him in Rome, but this is more difficult. It’s really a precious experience to meet him in Mongolia. We are really, really happy,” she said.

Hong Kong Cardinal-designate Stephen Chow, who will get his red hat from Pope Francis Sept. 30, is in Mongolia for the pope’s visit, and was present at the pope’s official welcome ceremony Saturday morning.

Tushin, 38, a Mongolian who is a Baptist Christian, told journalists Saturday that the broader Christian community in Mongolia has “a lot of respect for the pope, especially because he is the first non-European pope.”

“He’s from Argentina and he’s more relatable, he’s more common to the people, relatable, more global,” he said.

Ordinary Mongolians “don’t care much” about the pope’s visit, he said, saying they generally don’t know much about the Catholic Church or the pope, other than his name.

Regardless, Catholicism in Mongolia is growing, Tushin said, saying there are many Mongolians who convert from other branches of Christianity because they are attracted to the hierarchal structure of the Catholic Church and to the priest as an intermediary between God and the faithful, as this is closer to the experience of Buddhism, which is the majority faith in Mongolia.

“Those believers who are converting to Catholicism, they want something like priests, they want an intermediary…They want to have a closer relationship with priests, because in the Catholic Church priests have more connection with believers,” he said.

Tushin noted that Güyük Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan who was the third leader of the Mongol Empire, had once invited the pope to make a pilgrimage to Mongolia.

“At that time, [the pope] didn’t come, but now he has come. It’s a great day for Christians in this country,” he said.

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