Donald Trump's risky religious pilgrimage

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Besieged by bad news at home, President Donald Trump is about to get religion, bigly. reports citing CNN.

In his first foreign trip as President, which begins Friday, Trump has planned a pilgrimage of sorts, visiting the homelands of all three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- before heading to Europe for meetings with Pope Francis and NATO leaders.

In all, it's an ambitious nine-day, five-country tour that will test the religious acumen and diplomatic skills of a President who, beyond courting conservative Christians and casting suspicion on Muslims, rarely talks about religion.

Trump's itinerary includes Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, where he aims to erase his Islamophobic image and urge Muslim leaders to address extremist ideologies. In the Holy Land, Trump wants to jumpstart the stalled peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, while visiting touchstones like the Western Wall. And in Europe, the President seeks to repair frayed relations with two of the continent's most venerable institutions, the Vatican and NATO.

Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, called the President's plans unprecedented. "No President has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslims faiths all on one trip," he said at a press briefing last week.

Actually, other Presidents have visited Saudi Arabia and the Holy Land on the same trip. But no President has included the Vatican, Catholicism's holy headquarters, on the itinerary.

The White House says Trump has three main goals: to project American power abroad, build relationships with world leaders and "broadcast a message of unity" to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

"What President Trump is seeking is to unite peoples of all faiths around a common vision of peace, progress and prosperity," McMaster said.

Religious accord is a smart way for the White House to frame Trump's trip, said Chris Seiple, former president of the Institute for Global Engagement and an expert on faith and foreign policy.
"Most of the American people are utterly fed up with the Middle East, and this framework is a way to get their attention," Seiple said.

But some experts question whether Trump is the right messenger to preach about religious unity.

Trump was raised Christian, but as an adult he has rarely attended worship services, nor had he cultivated relationships with religious leaders before his running for president. During the campaign, his remarks on religion were sometimes seen as uninformed and divisive.

He was accused of tweeting an anti-Semitic image and trafficking in anti-Jewish tropes; he said "Islam hates us" and pledged to temporarily bar Muslims from the United States; he even feuded with Pope Francis, who said that someone who talks only about building walls instead of bridges isn't Christian. Trump called the Pope's comments "disgraceful."

Concerns about Trump's views on religion have carried over into his administration.

He pleased his conservative Christian base with the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and an executive order promising greater legal latitude to pastors who want to preach about politics. But Jews complained for weeks about his reluctance to condemn dozens of bomb threats at Jewish community centers, and Muslims say his executive order halting immigration from several Muslim-majority nations discriminates against their religion.

"Up until now, Trump's message on Islam has been very confrontational, a clash-of-civilizations type narrative," said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on political Islam. "For him to talk about the great faiths unified in a common civilization would be quite different."

Posing for photos with the Pope and praying at the site of Jesus' tomb may alter aspects of Trump's image, but the his pilgrimage bears considerable risks, especially for someone with a tendency to improvise in delicate diplomatic situations.

"If he takes advantage of this trip to bring people together, that would be good," said Seiple. "On the other hand, the whole thing could blow up in our face."
With those challenges in mind, here are the key religious events during Trump's trip.

2017.05.19 / 20:35
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