By Joseph Campbell
ARVAIKHEER, Mongolia (Reuters) - Perlimaa Gavaadandov offers a tribute to the sky by splashing a cup of freshly boiled milk tea just outside her yurt on the edge of Mongolia's grasslands, following an age-old tradition.
But at the end of her daily morning ritual, the 71-year-old pauses for a brief Christian prayer and crosses herself across the chest.
"For me, I offer this to our god and pray, without losing our culture," said Gavaadandov, who belongs to Mongolia's tiny Catholic minority, which the Church says numbers about 1,450.
It was important to keep alive Mongolian traditions alongside her Catholic faith, she said.
"I also teach my children to preserve this valuable heritage," added Gavaadandov, who wore an orange deel, or traditional silk robe.
With Pope Francis set to arrive on Thursday in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, she and several fellow parishioners hope to greet him and follow his every step until he leaves on Sept. 4.
"I am so excited that he is coming and I’ll get the chance to meet him in person, especially since he is the leader of the Catholic religion," she said. "I can’t wait to see him."
Gavaadandov, who lives on the outskirts of the central city of Arvaikheer, became a Catholic about 18 years ago, soon after a mission set up in her neighbourhood, being drawn initially by her curiosity at the foreigners speaking accented Mongolian.
Once a member of a regional government council during Mongolia’s communist era, Gavaadandov said she found her new faith during a difficult time after suffering a leg injury.
Eventually her leg got better, and she became a devout Catholic. For years, she often attended church services alone, but gradually her family, including her grandchildren and husband, joined her.
Still, the news of Pope Francis’s visit to her landlocked country was completely unexpected.
The nation of about 3.3 million is strategically significant for the Roman Catholic Church because of its proximity to China, where the Vatican is trying to improve the situation of Catholics.
Mongolians' nomadic lifestyle makes it difficult for the mission priests to keep in touch with parishioners, however.
"It is their way of life," said James Mate, a priest at Our Mother of Mercy Mission, where Gavaadandov attends church in a small yurt, or circular domed tent common in central Asia.
"They go upcountry to take care of their animals, to check on their relatives and so forth," added Mate, who originally hails from Kenya and delivers church services in Mongolian at one of just three Catholic parishes outside the capital.
Mongolia has just two native Catholic priests across a total of nine parishes. Arvaikheer has about 55 converts, Mate said.
About 60% of Mongolians identify as religious. Buddhists make up 87.1% of this number, with Muslims accounting for 5.4%, while 4.2% are Shamanist, 2.2% Christian and 1.1% follow other religions, the U.S. State Department says.
Occasionally Gavaadandov finds herself wishing she had come to her new faith sooner.
"Sometimes, I think if I were little younger, I could have converted sooner and met believers around the world and seen lots of nice things," she said.
(Reporting by Joseph Campbell; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)