Western Missionaries in Mongolia: Faith today, socio-political agenda tomorrow
by Boris Kushkhov on 13 Feb 2023 0 Comment

In the 1990s, Mongolia created a new legal basis for the activities of foreign religious organizations: The law allowed free missionary and religious education activities of foreign organizations in the country.


This step was not simply a decision to ensure genuine religious freedom for the citizens of a democratic state. It was a decision made to avoid possible tensions with the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Altai Kazakhs, who practice Islam in a predominantly Buddhist country. Finally, restricting their relations with international Islamic institutions could result in an increase in protests in the region.


No less important was the creation of a legal environment for the activities of Tibetan Buddhist preachers that would preclude their contact with Mongolian state authorities. The fact is that Tibetan spiritual institutions (including the Dalai Lama himself) that are not loyal to China are perceived by Chinese authorities as an alternative Tibetan government. Consequently, even their purely religious activities in Mongolia, if the state is involved in regulating religious policy, could be perceived by China as an official relationship between Mongolian authorities and “Tibetan separatists.” And under the Mongolian-Chinese founding treaty, Mongolia has pledged not to interfere in China’s internal affairs.


Despite the seemingly complete observance of freedom of foreign missionary activity in Mongolia (at least in the above contexts), the results of its establishment soon became apparent, with rather unpredictable consequences. These are, in particular, the rapidly increasing missionary activity of religious institutions of Western countries, whose work has limited historical and cultural validity in contemporary Mongolia. And it is hardly necessary to comment on the well-known fact that some of these organizations operate within the framework of political initiatives of the United States and European countries. That is what they have begun to do actively in this state.


Speaking about the unexpected denominational changes caused by the activities of Western missionaries in Mongolia, we should first mention the fact that Protestant Christianity has become the second denomination in the capital Ulaanbaatar. As of 2021, 3% of respondents considered themselves Protestants. Since 1990, about 600 Protestant churches have been built in Mongolia, most of them in the capital and surrounding sums. The data on Ulaanbaatar is critical because it accounts for a large portion of the country’s population (over 50%) and because most of the country’s political life is concentrated in this city. Consequently, a sectarian group in this city of Mongolia can achieve a critical mass that gives it political weight.


A second indicator of active religious propaganda by Western missionaries in Mongolia is survey data on Mongolian citizens’ familiarity with various religious movements. For example, 7% of respondents know of the existence of Baptist Protestantism (which is banned in the Russian Federation), placing this non-traditional religious group sixth in awareness after Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, and Shamanism. Since 2002, the Evangelists (an organization banned in the Russian Federation) with 12 churches in Ulaanbaatar and the Adventists (an organization banned in the Russian Federation) with six churches and nearly 4,000 parishioners have been very active in “educational outreach.”


Mongolia’s extremely high level of religious tolerance for a developing country also offers significant potential for foreign missionary work. 69% of respondents had no difficulty making contact with a representative of another denomination. Consequently, the ability of missionaries – representatives of non-traditional religions for Mongolia to influence public opinion is very high.


Western missionaries to Mongolia have employed a wide range of tactics. Most notably, in the 1990s, their efforts focused on education. For example, Catholic spiritual missions opened several kindergartens and centers to care for street children in Mongolia. Later, they established English language centers in the country, which also gave Mongolian high school students access to Western universities. The target audience of religious organizations are young people, who are more loosely attached to Mongolia’s traditional faith than adults and older people. It is Mongolia’s young people who are most receptive to Western values and politico-social ideas disseminated in the country, including by Protestant and Catholic preachers.


Representatives of Christian missions in Mongolia focus much of their efforts on explaining the justification for their activities in Mongolia. Their sociocultural rhetoric, for example, includes popular references to Nestorian activities in Mongolia in the 11th and 13th centuries. In addition, the missionaries emphasize the popularization of the story of Kereit Toghrul Wang Khan, the patron saint of the future Genghis Khan, who is believed to have professed Christianity. These references to Mongolia’s history are used in religious propaganda to justify the growing popularity of Catholicism and Protestantism in a country whose traditional religions are Shamanism and Buddhism.


Another means of “accommodating” the citizens of Mongolia is the simplification of traditional religious rituals. Most missions are reluctant to initiate Mongolians into the intricacies of religious procedures and ceremonies, which are extremely important to any church as a religious organization. The “community of values” is emphasized by missionaries as a top priority.


Summarizing a brief overview of the religious activities of the Protestant and Catholic spiritual missions in Mongolia, some peculiarities of their “spiritual work” can be noted.


Firstly, it does not have at all the “anti-pagan enlightenment” character often emphasized by Western missionaries around the world. Most of the spiritual missionary activity is concentrated in the city of Ulaanbaatar, the area with the least prevalence of traditional polytheistic cults in Mongolia. This concentration in the political and social center of the country may indicate that the political and ideological aspirations of “spiritual mentors” coming to Mongolia from the United States and Western Europe predominate. This is also evidenced by their widespread neglect of their own religious ceremonial in favour of conversations about values and worldviews.


Secondly, there is consistency and coherence among missions. Despite the wide range of Western religious movements in Mongolia, missionaries have avoided competition and interreligious conflict. Moreover, they even sacrifice the spread of their own vision of Christianity in favour of the broader interests of promoting Christianity by abandoning their own rituals and fighting the “heresies” of other preachers. These circumstances make relevant the question of the overall political impulse driving the preachers’ “enlightenment” impulses.


Thirdly, a common tactic of all missions is to target young and non-religious citizens of Mongolia, suggesting that the preachers have a long-term strategy to consolidate their influence in the country. It is no secret that propaganda among secular youth is the most effective, if not the fastest, way to satisfy Western political and ideological interests in Asia.


Fourth, because of the broad class of non-religious citizens, their considerable religious tolerance, the decline of traditional beliefs, the country’s orientation toward Western political and social structures, and the limited interference of the state in religious life, we should expect a further strengthening of the position of Western preachers in Mongolia. At this point, it is difficult to speak about the extent of the missionaries’ actual influence on the country’s political life. However, this is the case simply because they focus on very long-term results.


Boris Kushkhov, the Department for Korea and Mongolia at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.” Courtesy


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