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. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Ronen Zvulun *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-TRUMP-TRIP, originally transmitted on May 18, 2017.

Trump trip to Middle East, Vatican offers religious opportunities and pitfalls

JERUSALEM (RNS) 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.

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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.

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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.

The Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Sean Pavone

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.

David Friedman, right, new U.S. ambassador to Israel, talks to Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler as they both visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on May 15, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Ammar Awad *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-TRUMP-TRIP, originally transmitted on May 18, 2017.

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.

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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.

The West Bank is highly disputed territory, and negotiators have for decades failed to come up with a plan for the area that satisfies both Israelis and Palestinians. But Trump, a real estate magnate before he was president, promised — arrogantly and naively in the eyes of many — to broker a "deal" in the conflict which he described as "maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years."

Pope Francis attends his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on Nov. 16, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-TRUMP-TRIP, originally transmitted on May 18, 2017.

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

On May 24 Trump will meet Pope Francis at the Vatican. The pope, who once implied that Trump “is not Christian” because of his insistence on building a wall along America’s southern border, recently struck a more conciliatory tone.

“I never make a judgment about a person without listening to them. I believe that I shouldn’t do this,” the pope told reporters on May 15.

Trump's itinerary, which appears fraught to some, offers hope to others.

The Rev. David Neuhaus, patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, said the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem “hopes that the visit of President Trump will advance the welfare of the peoples of this land, especially those who thirst for peace and cry out for justice."

"We will pray that the Holy Spirit inspire President Trump and the leaders of Israel and Palestine to see that the future cannot be walls and fear but only bridges and dialogue, pardon, reconciliation and the recognition of the rights and dignity of all,” he said.

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said Trump’s outreach to people of different faiths could be a constructive way to build trust.

“There’s been a tendency” on the part of leaders “to see religion as part of the problem and something best avoided,” Rosen said, “but doing so only plays into the hands of the most extreme elements.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with Jason Greenblatt, President Trump's Middle East envoy, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 14, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mohamad Torokman  *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-TRUMP-TRIP, originally transmitted on May 18, 2017.

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Rosen said he was “encouraged” by a March 16 meeting between Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy on the Arab-Israeli peace process, and Muslim, Jewish and Christian clerics at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.

Greenblatt “expressed his understanding of the importance of religious leaders — not to take the place of politicians, but also not to ignore the psycho-spiritual dimensions, the (religious) attachments that are the foundation of people’s identities and presence here,” Rosen said.

If people don’t feel their attachments are taken seriously “it will be very hard to get to any political solution,” Rosen said.

Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that “in principle, we have no problem with Trump visiting areas of the world with religious significance. It’s what he does there that is of concern.”

Hooper said Muslims are concerned by Trump’s past statements and current policies that many view as Islamophobic.

On Wednesday, CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad offered some “advice” to Trump related to the speech on Islam he plans to give in Saudi Arabia.

“If President Trump wishes to reach out to ordinary Muslims in the Middle East and around the world, he should avoid the pejorative terminology, anti-Muslim stereotypes and counterproductive policies promoted by Islamophobic advisers such as Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka,” Awad said.