Ulaanbaatar (AsiaNews/EDA) - Mongolia's young Catholic Church continues to grow, as 30 more people, both teens and adults, underwent baptism on Easter eve.
The number of believers is now close to a thousand, this despite a history of just over 20 years, with the arrival of the first foreign missionaries in 1992 after decades of state atheism imposed by Communism.
From a legal point of view, religious freedom is guaranteed. However, the faithful face new challenges, namely government red tape that is both "intrusive and restrictive", aimed at curbing the development of the various Churches and religious denominations.
For example, a 2009 law requires foreign missionaries to hire a certain number of Mongolian citizens, a condition that imposes a financial burden on local parishes and mission. At the same time, the law is applied unevenly, weighing in more heavily on some religious groups than others.
As a result of a new quota system imposed by the Mongolian government, some US missionaries were forced to leave the country in 2010.
Since then, the opportunities to work "have become more and more restricted," and "things have become more difficult for the Church," said Mgr Wenceslao Padilla, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar.
What is more, the prelate warns against the dangers of "growing materialism", a problem that also affects Catholics, who do not have time "to come to church."
"It can be said with certainty that only the poor come to us," the bishop said, "but this makes me very happy. In fact, as Pope Francis put it, I think the Church should be poor and for the poor."
According to the latest figures, Mongolia's Christians, of all denominations, are slightly above 2 per cent of the population, this in a country where most people are Buddhist with a mixture of local shamanistic beliefs and practices. A high number are also atheists, almost 40 per cent.
Catholics number around a thousand, but have set up facilities for orphans, the destitute and the elderly, as well medical clinics in a country with a poor health infrastructure, not to mention several schools and technical institutes.
In 1992, when the first foreign (especially Filipinos) missionaries were allowed into the country, including future Bishop Wenceslao Padilla of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the country had no parishes. Now there are six, four of which in the capital, a sign of the Church's growth.
At present, 81 missionaries from 22 different nations operate in the country, the apostolic prefect noted in a pastoral letter released to mark 20 years of the Church in Mongolia.
Meanwhile, the first two native-born seminarians are training for the priesthood in Daejeon, South Korea.