Pope Francis pets a guide dog during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican. Image Credit: AP

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis will go to Mongolia in early September in the first visit by a pontiff to the Buddhist-majority Asian nation, the Vatican announced on Saturday.

The 86-year-old pontiff will tour the vast nation, sandwiched between Russia and China, from August 31 to September 4 at the invitation of the country’s president and church authorities, the head of the Vatican’s press service Matteo Bruni said.

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The announcement of the trip comes just two months after Francis was hospitalised for three nights with bronchitis, after which he returned to his busy schedule.

Mongolia has one of the world’s smallest Catholic communities, estimated at just 1,500 people among the more than three million residents.

But Francis has long championed trips to smaller or more far-flung nations.

Last August, he made a cardinal Italian missionary Giorgio Marengo, who as apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar is the most senior Catholic official in Mongolia.

China will likely loom large over the visit, given its close economic ties with Mongolia.

Francis led a years-long effort to build ties with Communist Beijing and in 2018 the Holy See reached a two-year agreement on the thorny issue of the appointment of bishops.

The accord was renewed for two years in October, against a backdrop of tensions over the place of the country’s estimated 10 million or so Catholics.

“Mongolia is a peripheral state for China,” said Antoine Maire, a Mongolia specialist at France’s Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique.

Political instability

ut he said he did not see the country playing a mediating role betwen the Vatican and Beijing, saying it was balanced between its two giant neighbours.

“They are caught in a vice between Russia and China” Maire told AFP, suggesting with the pope’s visit Mongolia allows them to “diversify their external relations”.

Mongolia has struggled with political instability since its first democratic constitution in 1992, when it emerged from the Soviet orbit.

It has been the subject of growing interest in recent years from the United States as part of a strategy to thwart the rise of China.

The Vatican established formal diplomatic relations with Mongolia in 1992.

Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has conducted 41 overseas trips and visited around 60 different countries.

Despite an increasing number of health issues, notably a knee problem that has required him to use a wheelchair for the pats year, he continues to travel.

Earlier this year he visited the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, and Hungary, and has trips planned later this year to Portugal and to Marseille.

He has talked about potentially going to India in 2024, while other Asian visits in the past have included trips to Kazakhstan, Japan and South Korea.