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Trump Visits the Pope: Cooling the 'Holy War' Between the Vatican and the White House

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A mural signed by "TV Boy" and depicting Pope Francis and U.S. President Donald Trump kissing on a wall in downtown Rome, Italy. May 11, 2017.
A mural signed by "TV Boy" and depicting Pope Francis and U.S. President Donald Trump kissing on a wall in downtown Rome, Italy. May 11, 2017. Credit: TONY GENTILE/REUTERS

Even before Donald Trump boards Air Force One for the Vatican, following visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the encounter with the Pope is off to an awkward start.  

When Trump announced he would be travelling “to a place that my cardinals love very much — Rome,” Vatican insiders, Church experts and many Catholics immediately cringed at the president’s use of the possessive to refer to U.S. cardinals. The Italian Catholic daily Avvenire wondered whether Trump thought he had “conscripted” the princes of the Church into his administration, while theologian and historian Massimo Faggioli tweeted that the last non-religious leader to refer to “my cardinals” had been Napoleon.

After all, back in the Middle Ages, wars broke out, emperors were excommunicated and popes deposed when secular leaders attempted to wrest the power of appointing Church officials from the pontiff, and still today the Vatican and China have no diplomatic relations largely because they disagree on who should select local bishops.

Trump, of course, may have been blissfully unaware of the issue’s sensitivity. And while the president’s penchant for making rash and bizarre statements may be a concern to Vatican officials, the way Trump constructed and framed his first foreign trip sent a very different message than what we are used to hearing from the mercurial leader: packing away his previous denunciations of Islam for coalition-building with Muslim nations and ratcheting down the tension between his administration and the leader of the Catholic faithful. These seem to be the first hints of intentions not often associated with this White House: compromise and de-escalation.

Relations between the Pope and Trump, even at a distance, cannot be described as warm. The two outspoken leaders have been at odds over pretty much every issue. The pope has called for action to mitigate global warming and protect the environment while Trump has dismissed the science on climate change. And while Francis has taken a wait-and-see approach since the president took office, before the election he chastised as “not Christian” the Republican candidate’s plans to stop immigration. In response, Trump the candidate imagined a scenario where ISIS would bomb the Vatican and called the Pope's intervention "disgraceful" and suggested the Holy Father was being used as a "pawn". 

But over the weekend, Francis offered an olive branch. “I have never wanted to make a judgment without first listening to the person,” he told reporters. "There are always doors that are not closed. We need to find the doors that are at least partly open, go in, and talk about things we have in common and go forward, step by step." 

The Pope may be responding to the spirit of compromise that's a subtext of Trump's first overseas trip.  In the space of a few days, he will visit the holiest places of the three Abrahamic religions “to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism.”

President Donald Trump arrives at Orlando International Airport for a visit to St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Fla. March 3, 2017.Credit: Joe Burbank/AP

Speaking about his stop in the Saudi kingdom, Trump pledged to “begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence.”

Such hopeful words were a far cry from the broad conclusion Trump reached in a CNN interview last year that “Islam hates us” or his call for a “total shutdown” of Muslims' entry to the United States and his attempts to follow up on that campaign promise during his first months in the White House.

The new language signals that Trump intends to use this trip to attempt to distance himself from those early hardline positions, which suggested he subscribed to the idea that there is an ongoing “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam. First discussed by U.S. political scientist Samuel Huntington in the 1990s, this theory has become common currency among neocons and far-right ideologues, including two formerly rising stars in the Trump administration, Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon.

With Flynn fired and Bannon demoted, and with the increased influence of more moderate advisors, the White House may be developing a softer view of U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

All this bodes well for Trump’s meeting with Pope Francis, who has always, explicitly or implicitly, rejected any clash-of-civilizations theories, maintaining that all true faithful reject violence and that people of all religions can and should unite to oppose terrorism. Francis repeated this message during last month’s trip to Egypt, where he visited Cairo’s Al Azhar university and urged a crowd of Muslim clerics to guide young people away from violence and religious fundamentalism.

Trump’s move away from linking Islam as a whole to terrorism could provide some common ground for the two leaders when they meet in Rome on May 24 and create the basis for a “reset” in U.S.-Vatican ties, which might also benefit the president’s standing with Catholics back home.

Noor Ul-Hasan, a leader in Utah's Muslim community, challenges Rep. Jason Chaffetz on the Muslim travel ban at a town hall meeting in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. Feb. 9, 2017Credit: Rick Bowmer/AP

But this shift may be seen less favorably by another of Trump’s soon-to-be-hosts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as such a realignment inevitably implies an adjustment of the White House’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict toward more mainstream positions, which would allow the president to portray himself as a fair and honest broker for a peace agreement.

This process appears to be well under way, with Trump hesitating over his pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and criticizing construction in the settlements while hosting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and warming up to the idea of Palestinian self-determination. This is already the Vatican's language: it recognized the State of Palestine in 2015 and Francis has consistently pushed for a two-state solution to the conflict.

During the campaign, there was talk of a 'holy war' between Trump and the Vatican. At least for a few hours, it seems likely both leaders will talk more in terms of a cooperative truce and a mending of fences of sorts.

That may come as a relief after the stopover in Israel, which may well require a difficult balancing act on both sides, testing relations between Trump and Netanyahu. It's not impossible to imagine that in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump, the head of the Catholic Church and the Guardian of the Muslim Holy Places will be lined up to pressure the prime minister of the Jewish state. 

Ariel David is a Tel Aviv-based reporter for Haaretz. He worked for five years as correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome, covering Italy and the Vatican. Follow him on Twitter: @arieldavid1980 

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