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President Trump begins his first overseas presidential trip tomorrow, and he has got an itinerary that could be mistaken for a religious pilgrimage. His first stops are Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican. It's a bold move for a president to begin his foreign travel in the holy lands of three major faiths, and it is a trip fraught with risk, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: White House aides say this first presidential trip is meant to reaffirm America's global leadership and strengthen relations with world leaders. But they also say Mr. Trump is looking to people of faith by starting in the centers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Trump's U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, called this the amazing aspect of this trip.
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NIKKI HALEY: Think about that - three of the strongest religions. He's going to go and talk to them about where we can work together. And right now, the president understands we have to get unity across the world.
GJELTEN: Among those impressed by this approach is Robert Nicholson. He's the founder of the Philos Project, which promotes religious engagement in the Middle East.
ROBERT NICHOLSON: We think people do things only because of economics or because of some sort of political grievance. But in actuality, religion drives huge numbers of people on this planet, and Trump understands that. And I don't think he knows exactly how to fix it, but I think he knows enough to recognize that religion matters.
GJELTEN: It's not an original thought. One oft-cited reason for the failure of the so-called Oslo process to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was that it neglected the importance of religion. A few years later, Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders mounted a peace effort on their own and agreed on a plan. Jonathan Sacks, who at the time was the chief rabbi for the United Kingdom, says it went nowhere because political leaders ignored it.
JONATHAN SACKS: These are huge achievements, but politicians don't seem to want to run with them.
GJELTEN: Sacks hopes Donald Trump can succeed where other politicians have failed.
SACKS: I think actually this is a bold initiative, one long overdue, and, you know, it could just produce some interesting results.
GJELTEN: But it may take more than Donald Trump just visiting Saudi Arabia or Israel or Rome.
SERENE JONES: Just because you stand in a sacred place doesn't mean you hear sacred truths.
GJELTEN: Serene Jones is president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York.
JONES: He is obviously picking and choosing who he's going to hear about these religious traditions from. So clearly, this is more of a political trip than it is one seeking deep religious understanding.
GJELTEN: In fact, there are many ways this trip could go badly. Pope Francis is an outspoken advocate of welcoming immigrants and refugees. Those positions could get in the way of a friendly chat in Rome. In Israel, Trump will have to choose his words carefully not to anger Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. And then there's Saudi Arabia. The White House says Trump will speak there about a peaceful vision of Islam. Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project says much could turn on that speech.
NICHOLSON: He needs to show that he respects Islam. For a long time, much of the conversation in the U.S. has been anything Muslim is bad. I think one of the most important things for him to do is to show that he understands that they have a long and ancient and distinguished past and that he respects it.
GJELTEN: During his presidential campaign, Trump said, I think Islam hates us. Trump undoubtedly knows what he's up against, but he may also recognize the opportunity in this trip. And for the moment, at least, just the fact that he's willing to undertake such an ambitious effort could mean he'll get the benefit of the doubt along the way. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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