At the Great Ganden Monastery outside Ulan Bator, the people of Mongolia are searching for their past.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, more than half the male population of this landlocked country lived as monks in places like Ganden.
But then came communism. During the Soviet takeover in the 1920s, local communist leaders backed by Stalin sought to eradicate all traces of religion with a bloody purge. The great monasteries were smashed, their content looted and their monks dispersed
“They destroyed everything,” said Puravbat, one of the senior monks at Ganden. “The sutras were burned, the monasteries closed. We have had to start again from scratch, retranslate the sutras and rebuild the old learning.”
Puravbat showed me photographs of a recently unearthed mass grave just outside Ulan Bator. The grave contains the grizzly remains of thousands of monks, each skull clearly showing the hole from the executioner’s bullet.
In his little hut at the rear of the monastery, 96-year-old Sereeter is one of the few remaining survivors of the communist purge. “They took away my three elder brothers and shot them. I was only saved because I was young,” he said.
“They took away all our family property. We were quite a wealthy family, but after (that) we had nothing,” he said. Outside in the main courtyard stood a group of young Mongolians, who looked more like tourists than pilgrims.
They went through the motions, spinning the prayer wheels and lighting candles, but few seemed to have much idea of what it was really all about. Instead, many young Mongolians are looking elsewhere for spiritual inspiration.
Rise of Christianity
On the other side of Ulan Bator, I visited a very different religious ceremony. A makeshift church hall was packed with Mongolian worshippers, their eyes tight shut, their arms swaying in the air.
There was little doubt about the passion felt by these worshippers for their new foreign god. Axel, a young missionary from Germany, was leading the service. “I felt God told me go to the East,” Axel said.
“One day I heard a report of Mongolia. I didn’t know where to look, but somehow I had this click in my heart,” he said.
“As I went there the first time, in 1992, it just touched my heart. I felt so touched and felt the confirmation in my spirit (that) this is the place.”
The converts are young, drawn to Christianity by its powerful evangelical message. Many are also escaping deeply troubled pasts. Seventeen-year-old Solongo is a case in point. She ended up on the streets after repeated beatings from her alcoholic father. “I was on the streets for four years,” she said. “I did lots of bad things, I got drunk, I smoked and lots of other bad things.”
“Then two years ago I came to this church. It changed me, I stopped doing those bad things. Jesus has changed my life.”
Christian groups are proliferating so fast that they now outnumber official Buddhist organisations. But to Mongolia’s conservative Buddhist elite, such rapid growth is deeply troubling.
Some Christian groups now accuse the government of orchestrating a campaign to prevent them gaining new converts. It is a charge which Mongolia’s devoutly Buddhist Prime Minister Enkbayar strongly denies. But he did acknowledge concern about the arrival of these new foreign religious groups in his once Buddhist country.
“Religious differences are very difficult to solve, because all religions express themselves in terms of ultimate truth,” he said.
These young Mongolians have found their truth, and it lies in a new foreign god. The question facing the country now is whether traditional Buddhism, in its critically weakened state, will withstand the foreign onslaught – or whether Christianity will peacefully succeed where communism so brutally failed.