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Mongolia, Sweden and Algeria: the unlikely centres of Catholic conversion

Mass in the Myeongdong area of Seoul. Ten per cent of South Koreans are Catholic (Getty)

In 2016, Fr Joseph Enkh Baatar was ordained in St Peter and Paul Cathedral in Ulaanbaatar. Like so many buildings in Mongolia’s capital, the cathedral is modelled after the yurt – a round tent made of animal skin in which the peoples of the steppe have dwelled for millennia.

Fr Baatar is the country’s first native priest. There are fewer than 2,000 Catholics in Mongolia since missionary work began in earnest about 25 years ago, but their numbers are growing – albeit slowly. And the seedling Church in Mongolia isn’t alone. As pews empty in traditionally Catholic nations, conversions are flourishing in unlikely corners of the world.

Take Sweden. The Lutheran state Church, like the Church of England, was established in the 16th century by royal decree. The Catholic Church was subsequently outlawed and virtually wiped out. And, although Sweden is heavily secularised (fewer than 30 per cent of Swedes describe themselves as religious), the Reformation’s legacy continues to cause difficulties for the Church.

“The general level of knowledge about Catholicism is very low in Sweden, with a lot of bias and prejudice,” Kristina Hellner, the Diocese of Stockholm’s communications officer, told me.

Yet Catholicism is among the fastest-growing religions in the country. There are 116,000 Catholics in Sweden, with 4,000 more registering each year and about 100 adult conversions. In fact, Church officials believe the number may actually be twice as large: it doesn’t take into account many immigrants, refugees and catechumens. In any event, Sweden is one of only a handful of European countries where the Church is growing.

Recognising the Church’s astonishing progress in Sweden, Pope Francis named Anders Arborelius the first Swedish cardinal last June. Since then, he’s become something of a celebrity. “Cardinal Arborelius is very popular among journalists and has been interviewed literally everywhere,” says Hellner. Fokus, the country’s largest news magazine, named him “Swede of the Year” in 2017.

Arborelius was raised Lutheran and converted in his 20s, which is common for ethnically Swedish Catholics. “Many of the most traditional and conservative Catholics in our parishes have converted from the Swedish Lutheran Church,” says Hellner, adding that “they are also often the ones that are most active and ‘loud’ on social media.” It’s a reality that British and American Catholics know all too well. According to the diocese, 70 catechumens will be received into the Church this Easter.

Catholic immigrants are making their home in a very different country: the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As Arab migrants and refugees pour over Europe’s borders, Filipino, Indian, Syrian, Lebanese, Nigerian and French Catholics are moving to the Gulf States in search of work in the booming oil industry. And the Emirates are perhaps the most liberal in allowing foreign workers to practise their faith.

Catholicism has grown rapidly in the UAE in recent decades. In 1965, the Emirates granted the Church permission to build one parish and one school in Dubai to serve the needs of its faithful. Today there are upwards of 700,000 Catholics, 40 priests and 10 parishes there. Dubai alone claims 300,000, making it the largest parish in the world.

The UAE understands the public relations value of such (relatively) lax regulations. In 2015, senior churchmen – including Vatican secretary of state Pietro Parolin – gathered for the opening of St Paul’s Church, the second Catholic parish in the country’s capital. “Our leadership knows its true wealth and accepts the obligation to respect and understand the many religious beliefs of the people living in this country,” said culture minister Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak in a speech at the opening ceremony.

Of course, the conditions for evangelisation are far from ideal. Islam is the official religion and the UAE’s laws are predicated on Sharia. Apostasy is a capital offence, which is why all its Catholics are foreign-born. But the UAE is dependent on foreign workers: little more than 10 per cent of residents are Emirati nationals. There is every reason to believe the Catholic population will continue to grow (though it may struggle to plant permanent roots) – and to hope that the UAE will grant religious minorities greater freedom of religion in order to attract much-needed migrants.

South Korea is another country where Catholicism is on the rise despite brutal historic persecution. The Church has had a presence on the peninsula only for about 250 years and, for the first hundred, saw waves of missionaries and converts martyred by the Joseon dynasty. But Catholics won the respect of their countrymen when they rallied to the anti-communist cause during the Korean War.

Today, 10 per cent of South Koreans are Catholic – the highest percentage of any Asian country except the Philippines. The country’s thriving economy, strong international standing and respected education system make it an ideal hub for evangelisation in Asia. Roughly 1,000 Koreans – ordained, Religious and lay – are engaged in mission work, mostly in Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, China, New Zealand, Cambodia, Russia and Mozambique.

Catholicism is also enjoying something of a renaissance in Algeria. The Church was virtually extinct between Islamisation in the 7th century and the advent of French colonialism in the 1800s. The Church’s cultural association with the French continues to make life difficult for Catholics. Earlier this year, the Vatican announced that a bishop and 18 Religious assassinated by extremists in the 1990s would be recognised as martyrs.

The country is 99 per cent Muslim, and Islam is its official religion. Nevertheless, Algeria boasts the third highest number converts to Christianity in Africa following Nigeria and Ethiopia – both of which have much larger Christian communities. Estimates on the number of Catholics specifically vary from a few hundred to several thousand. Many converts don’t legally change their religion, fearing accusations of apostasy – and to the imperialists’ faith, no less.

“All jobs Muslims do not care to do in the hospitals, the Religious do it,” Professor Camille Eid, an expert on Catholicism in the Middle East, told Zenit. “In the universities and all fields of social life – with women, with young people, publishing, translating, literature – all these are done by the Church and this has a tremendous impact upon Algerian society.”

Indeed, in Algeria, ecumenism can be a matter of survival. That’s why the apse of Our Lady of Africa Cathedral in Algiers bears the inscription Notre Dame d’Afrique priez pour nous et pour les Musulmans (“Our Lady of Africa, pray for us, and for the Muslims”).

The Algerian example is especially striking. St Augustine was born in Thagaste, the Berber heartland, which was located in the modern-day city of Souk Ahras. When he served as Bishop of Hippo, it was overwhelmingly Catholic. The Church’s population centres have undergone several of these shifts over her 2,000-year history, and each new centre begins as a mustard seed.

So, it’s true that nations that are predominantly Catholic today (such as Mexico and the Philippines) might have faster growth rates. But who knows? Give it a millennium. Mongolians may establish missions in France. Swedes might catechise the Brazilians. After all, Christ chose Rome as the headquarters of His Church. It doesn’t get much stranger than that.

Michael Davis is the Catholic Herald’s US editor

This article first appeared in the March 30 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here