Trump Begins Muslim Outreach in Tour of World Religious Centers

  • Stops planned at the Vatican, Israel and Saudi Arabia
  • President announces itinerary on National Day of Prayer

Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as president will begin with a symbolic tour of sacred centers of the three major Abrahamic religions, with stops at the Vatican, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

The gesture simultaneously reinforces his bona fides to religious conservatives who are among his most enthusiastic supporters and also represents an overture to an Islamic world he alienated with talk of a Muslim ban during his presidential campaign.

The trip later this month will include “a truly historic gathering in Saudi Arabia with leaders from all across the Muslim world,” Trump said in announcing the itinerary Thursday before an audience of U.S. clergy in the White House Rose Garden.

“We will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence, and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries,” he continued.

Trump will receive an audience with Pope Francis during his visit to the Holy See on May 24, the Vatican announced.

A senior administration official said the decision to visit Saudi Arabia first was made because of the country’s role as custodian of Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina. While there, the president and a group of Muslim leaders plan to have a dialogue about regional issues, including combating extremism.

The trip to Israel will be a chance to further strengthen the relationship with the Israeli people and discuss the peace process, the official said. Trump will meet both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his stop there.

The trip itinerary breaks a tradition going back to Ronald Reagan for U.S. presidents to make their first foreign visit to a neighboring country, either Canada or Mexico.

The Saudi stop will also be a test of Trump’s foreign policy vision.

Leaders there have been encouraged by the president’s intensified criticism of Iran, and decision to engage militarily after the use of chemical weapons by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Trump’s advisers say privately. A senior administration official said Arab leaders had told the administration they felt abandoned in recent years, and had told them this visit would be a historic opportunity.

But on the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly complained that Saudi Arabia was not treating the U.S. fairly and that the U.S. was spending too much money defending Saudi interests. The second official said that defense cost sharing would be part of conversations on the trip, though that effort seems focused on NATO allies.

The travel ban he announced as president on most citizens of six predominantly Muslim nations also has provoked anger in Arab nations. The ban has been temporarily blocked by U.S. courts.

Trump will make the stops at the beginning of a previously announced trip to Europe for a NATO summit in Brussels and a meeting in Italy of leaders of the Group of Seven major industrialized democracies.

Trump made the announcement after meeting with Catholic cardinals in the Oval Office, and a day after he met with Abbas at the White House.

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