Despite Father's Rhetoric, Ivanka Trump Meets With Pro-refugee Group in Rome

Sant’Egidio has enjoyed good ties with successive U.S. administrations, making the organization an ideal stop for Trump’s charm offensive with the Vatican

Ivanka Trump arrives at the Vatican to meet Pope Francis, May 24, 2017.

Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting at the Vatican with Pope Francis on Wednesday, first daughter Ivanka Trump visited a Catholic group known for helping refugees and proposing policies that are diametrically opposite to those backed by the White House.

The younger Trump took part in a meeting on efforts to combat human trafficking at the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic movement that is active in more than 70 countries on a range of social issues. During the closed-doors talk, she was set to meet women who have been victims of trafficking, according to Italian and Catholic media.

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After the meeting, Trump told reporters she was moved by the women's stories and pledged to support Sant'Egidio's activities. She praised the group for its programs "that have provided support and help to those who need it the most, whether it's the elderly, the poor, the disadvantaged and victims of human trafficking throughout Africa and the rest of the world."

While the sensitive issue of refugees is not officially on the agenda, the topic is closely related to human trafficking, as every year thousands of migrants reach Europe by making the dangerous crossing over the Mediterranean, often at exorbitant prices, in the rickety boats run by traffickers.

Sant’Egidio’s views on the issue are completely at odds with those of the U.S. president. While Trump has proposed a ban on Muslim entry to the United States and building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border to keep immigrants out, the Rome-based charity runs “humanitarian corridors,” which the group says have bypassed human traffickers and allowed for safe passage and legal entry to Italy for hundreds of Syrian refugees. 

A quick glance at the events promoted by the organization – from a “Refugees Welcome” party in Antwerp, Belgium, to a conference on “Migrants and Us” in Perugia, Italy – confirms how much the group’s spirit and views contrast starkly with Donald Trump’s and line up with Pope Francis’ benign attitude to refugees.

While the mercurial president and the socially-minded pontiff differ on many issues, immigration has been at the center of their most heated disagreement. During the U.S. presidential campaign, the pope decried Donald Trump’s proposed immigration policies as “not Christian.” The then-candidate responded by calling the criticism “disgraceful” and describing the pontiff as a “pawn.”

Wednesday’s meeting at the Vatican is being seen as a chance for the two leaders to mend fences and reset their relationship. The younger Trump’s event with the Sant’Egidio organization, whose work has often been praised by Francis, may be another sign of the White House’s willingness to extend an olive branch to the Vatican.

Founded in 1968 by a group of lay Catholics inspired by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Sant’Egidio runs outreach programs for the poor, the elderly and other vulnerable groups. From its headquarters in the picturesque Roman neighborhood of Trastevere, it promotes inter-religious dialogue, conflict resolution (in the 1990s it brokered an end to the civil war in Mozambique) and campaigns against the death penalty.

The group has enjoyed good ties with successive U.S. administrations, especially since George W. Bush met with its leaders during a 2007 trip to Rome, making Sant’Egidio an ideal stop for Trump’s charm offensive with the Vatican.

On the other hand, the meeting with an organization that differs so much with Trump on the issue of immigration, may also be part of the first daughter’s agenda of building an independent profile for herself even as she has become one of her father’s closer advisers.

The younger Trump has openly challenged the president’s views on the refugee crisis, and as she accompanies him on his first foreign trip she has tried to focus on issues not often associated with the current administration, as with her participation in a round-table discussion on women’s rights during a stop in Saudi Arabia.