09/20/2007, 00.00
MONGOLIA
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Joseph’s long struggle to build a church in his home town

Zuunmod’s 20 Catholics travel 60 kilometres every Sunday to the capital to attend mass. Now Joseph the carpenter is trying to convince the authorities to grant him and his community a permit to build a church in his home town. In the meantime he talks about his faith.

Ulaanbaatar (AsiaNews/UCAN) – Joseph chose his Catholic name because he does the same work that Jesus' father did, carpentry, but the 35-year-old man from Zuunmod, capital of Töv Aimag or Central Province, 60 kilometres south of Ulaanbaatar, is trying to convince local citizens' councils that Catholics need a church. At the same time he tries to explain what Christianity is all about.

“We go to Ulaanbaatar for mass every Sunday and travel by bus, which is really expensive and takes away our whole day,” he told the citizens' council on August 29 in a speech he prepared by reading from the Book of Jeremiah.

Travelling to the capital takes three-to-four hours each way, depending on road conditions and the weather.

In Zuunmod there are 20 baptised Catholics, half of them between the ages of 16 and 25. Five more community members are preparing for baptism next Easter.

We “always go to mass on Sundays, and there are others who would also like to go,” Joseph told UCA News. But “we do not have permission . . . [to carry out any] religious activity in our town yet.”

Still local Catholics meet once a week to discuss the Bible and pray, but since “we still do not have the permit, we do not speak about it, at all,” Joseph said.

Joseph the carpenter is convinced that Mongolians can easily understand Catholicism because of its similarity with traditional Mongolian values.

For example, the Ten Commandments bring to mind the Ten White Merits and Ten Black Sins that every Mongolian knows,

“I have a friend, an 86-year-old Buddhist monk. He understands many things about Christianity and loves the pope and (the Blessed) Mother Teresa,” he explained.

The Catholic Church is not banned in Mongolia but Catholics must apply to local citizens’ (bag), county (sum) and provincial (aimag) councils for a permit.

“Although it is harder, it is also a good thing,” Joseph said, “because this way people in a village do not see a church as something imposed upon them from above by the government, but have a say in whether they want a church in their village or not.” What is more, “we Catholics can share our faith with them and tell them about ourselves, and eliminate misunderstandings.”

Joseph spoke before the councils in March as part of his permit application. “Last time we passed both lower-level councils, and came up only one vote short in the provincial council. This time we passed the bag citizens' council with 56 of 87 votes in favour of our church. We trust in God and eventually hope to pass all three councils and have a church.”

According to Joseph, councillors who voted against the church gave various arguments, but most were based on lack of knowledge or some bad experience.

“Many Mongolians do not know that the various Christian groups and sects are very different from each other,” he said, adding that other Christian groups tried to win over converts by handing out sacks of flour or pens and trinkets. People also remember that some young Mongolians committed suicide 12 years ago in the belief they would rise on the third day.

“Our elders in the town, of course, do not want another thing like that,” he noted. “For some of these people, Christianity sounds dangerous because of these terrible misunderstandings. We had to explain very carefully what we believe in and how we live.”

As the self-appointed chronicler of the local Catholic community and father of two young children, he is taking notes about everything.

“I always take notes of what is happening, because later our children will read it and see that we worked very hard for our church,” he said.

“When they grow up, the church will be big and strong, all ready for them, but they will have to know how it all came about, how much their parents worked and fought for it.”

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