Pope Francis holds weekly audience at the Vatican
Pope Francis greets people on the day of the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 12, 2023. Reuters

Pope Francis confirmed on Friday that in September he plans to go to Mongolia, a country that has fewer than 1,500 Catholics but is strategically significant for the Roman Catholic Church because it borders China.

Francis first spoke of the possibility of going to Mongolia in a conversation with reporters aboard the papal plane returning from a trip to Africa in February. At the time he said it was a possibility but "not yet certain".

On Friday he appeared to confirm the trip in comments to executives and staff of ITA Airways, which has become the official carrier of the pope after its predecessor, Alitalia, went out of business in 2021.

"In two weeks' time, God willing, I will depart on my 41st pilgrimage, going to visit Hungary," Francis said of his April 28-30 trip to the East European country.

"Then there is Marseilles and Mongolia, and then all the others that are on the waiting list," he said.

The comment about Mongolia was unscripted and added extemporaneously at the audience for the ITA staff.

Francis has indicated the he will go to Mongolia directly from Marseilles, a trip that has been confirmed for Sept. 29.

Last August, Francis named Archbishop Giorgio Marengo, an

Italian, the first cardinal to be based in Mongolia, where he is

the Catholic Church's administrator.

The country is significant for the Vatican because it has a long border and close ties with China, where the Vatican is trying to improve the situation of Catholics in the communist country.

Mongolia, once known as Outer Mongolia, was part of China until 1921, when it achieved independence with the help of the Soviet Union. Inner Mongolia remained part of China.

Francis is due to go to Portugal in August and has said he would probably go to India next year.