ULAANBAATAR (Reuters): Calling himself one of the "humble heirs" of ancient schools of wisdom and quoting the Buddha, Pope Francis on Sunday urged all religions to live in harmony and shun ideological fundamentalism that foments violence.
Francis was speaking at an inter-religious meeting in the Mongolian capital and sharing the stage in an theatre with a dozen other religious representatives - the type of gathering that Francis' conservative critics have assailed in the past.
The primary purpose of the pope's visit to Mongolia is to meet the country's tiny Catholic community, at 1,450 members one of the world's smallest. He is due to say a Mass for them later on Sunday.
Mongolia borders with China and the pope has also used trip to send an apparent message to Beijing, which has difficult relations with the Vatican, that governments have nothing to fear from the Catholic Church because it has no political agenda.
Since he started the trip, Francis has praised religious freedom in Mongolia, which was severely repressed while the country was in the Soviet Union's sphere of influence - a fact mentioned by one of the Buddhist leaders who addressed him.
"Religions are called to offer the world this harmony, which technological progress alone cannot bestow," Francis said after listening to addresses from leaders representing Mongolian Buddhists, Muslims, Evangelicals, Jews, Orthodox, Mormans, Hindus, Shintos, Bahais, and Shamans.
"Brothers and sisters, today we are meeting together as the humble heirs of ancient schools of wisdom. In our encounter with one another, we want to share the great treasure we have received, for the sake of enriching a humanity so often led astray on its journey by the myopic pursuit of profit and material comfort," he said.
Francis quoted from a writings of the Buddha that says "the wise man rejoices in giving", noting it was similar to Jesus' saying "It is more blessed to give than to receive".
Conservative Catholics, such as Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, have lambasted the pope for even attending such gatherings, calling them "a supermarket of religions" that diminishes the status of the Catholic Church.
But the pope repeated on Sunday that he put great importance in "ecumenical, inter-religious and cultural dialogue". He said dialogue did not mean "to gloss over difference" but to seek understanding and enrichment.
He condemned "narrowness, unilateral imposition, fundamentalism and ideological constraint", saying they destroy fraternity, fuel tensions and compromise peace.
"There can be no mixing, then, of religious beliefs and violence, of holiness and oppression, of religious traditions and sectarianism," Francis said.
Several of the leaders, including the Jewish representative Yair Jacob Porat, and the shaman, imparted a special blessing from their religions on the pope, wishing him health and a long life.
There are only a handful of permanent Jewish residents in Mongolia, with the community ministering mostly to tourists and business travellers. (Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Edwina Gibbs) - Reuters