Trump Trip Offers Religious Opportunities and Pitfalls

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Ronen Zvulun
American and Israeli flags flutter in the wind May 17, 2017, atop the roof of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, ahead of President Trump’s upcoming visit to Israel.

President Trump has billed his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican as a sort of triple pilgrimage to places deeply meaningful to adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

But his first overseas trip as president also presents deep religious and political pitfalls.

Whether his time abroad will appease faith groups upset by Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban and his waffling over whether to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — among other thorny issues — remains to be seen.

He will meet with Pope Francis, who has made no secret of his disdain for Trump’s harsh rhetoric about immigrants and has reminded the president to remember the poor.

Trump’s trip, which begins Friday (May 19), reflects the president’s belief “that we all have to be united and we have to be joined together with an agenda of tolerance and moderation,” according to national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

Many in the U.S. and abroad find that assertion hypocritical, given Trump’s combative style and history of remarks deemed offensive to Muslims, Latinos, blacks, Jews, women and the disabled.

But others see this trip as a chance for Trump — embroiled in Washington over his handling of a probe into alleged Russian ties to his presidential campaign — to prove that he can overcome his divisive reputation.

In Saudi Arabia, Trump’s first stop, the president will share “his hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam” and “the need to confront radical ideology” during a meeting with officials from dozens of Muslim-majority countries, McMaster said.

Trump will not be able to visit Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad and the world’s holiest Islamic city, because it is off-limits to non-Muslims.

During the Israeli leg of the trip, Trump will likely score points with the 80 percent of white evangelical Christians in the U.S. who voted for him — many of whom feel personally tied to Israel.

In Jerusalem, Trump will be the first sitting president to pray at the Western Wall. But he nixed a request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accompany him, presumably because a joint visit could be perceived as tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan 50 years ago during the 1967 Middle East war.

No U.S. government has recognized Israeli — or any other — sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem. Trump, who promised during his campaign to move the Tel Aviv-based U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, has so far not done so out of fears such a move would incite the Arab world.

The wall visit comes at a sensitive time for American-Israeli relations. Israel’s right-wing government views Trump as a vast improvement over former President Obama, whom they considered overly sympathetic to Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.

But there is also concern that Trump’s team will be too even-handed and that he and his advisers lack understanding of the region.

On Monday a senior U.S. Consulate official coordinating Trump’s visit told Israeli counterparts that the Western Wall is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”

The wall is in East Jerusalem.

While in Jerusalem, Trump will pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, widely revered as the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection.

It is unclear whether Trump will pray at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem when he meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Jesus’ birth.

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SOURCE: Deseret News
Michele Chabin

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