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WATCH: Pope arrives at Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Ulaanbaatar

Pope Francis praised the "wisdom" of the Mongolian people Saturday, in harmony with nature and embracing spirituality while warning the young democracy of risks such as corruption and environmental ruin.

The 86-year-old Francis, on the first papal visit to the Asian nation, sandwiched between China and Russia, was feted with an official welcome ceremony that included a phalanx of Mongolian horsemen in metal armour parading past the State Palace.

The pope, who waved to the crowd in front of a massive bronze statue of Genghis Khan as a group of young Mongolian Catholics yelled 'Viva il Papa!', is seeking a neutral ally in the sensitive region as he seeks to improve Vatican relations with both of Mongolia's neighbours.

Welcomed by President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh, who donned the traditional "deel" tunic, Pope Francis called himself a "pilgrim of friendship" and extolled the virtues of the country, including its "ranchers and planters respectful of the delicate balances of the ecosystem".

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Mongolia's Shamanist and Buddhist traditions of living in harmony with nature and its creatures "can contribute significantly to the urgent and no longer deferrable efforts to protect and preserve planet Earth", he said.

Francis also praised Mongolia for its religious tolerance and nuclear-free policy, but warned that corruption was "the fruit of a utilitarian and unscrupulous mentality that has impoverished whole countries".