Donald Trump's first overseas trip as president begins Friday with a pilgrimage of sorts. With stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican, Trump will be visiting the centers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the three major monotheistic religions.
But he's wading into deep waters with potential for missteps and disagreement. He'll meet with Muslim leaders despite declaring that "Islam hates us" during the campaign; he'll meet with Pope Francis, who advocates for countries to be welcoming to refugees.
"His message is going to be about unity," said U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Religious differences have produced conflict around the world and especially in the Middle East. Some argue that religion can be part of the solution, if leaders like Trump make stronger faith-based appeals.
"The way we've engaged the world has been strictly in material terms," said Robert Nicholson, founder of the Philos Project, which promotes greater religious engagement in the Middle East. "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."
One cited reason for the failure of the 1993 Oslo Accords 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. It, too, failed, in part because political leaders failed to lend support to the religious leaders.
"These are huge achievements, but politicians don't seem to want to run with them," said Jonathan Sacks, who supported a faith-based peace approach as the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. "It's never been connected to a political process. It's been a stand-alone."
Sacks' book Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence outlined his case that the Abrahamic scriptures support compassion and tolerance rather than hatred and cruelty. He believes that President Trump, by meeting first with Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders, has an opportunity to make progress where others have failed.
"The president of the United States, through his personal standing, might be able to say, 'Let's make religion part of the peace process,' " Sacks said, "because it's the only thing that's been left out of it until now."
The obstacles in Trump's way are nevertheless daunting. In Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump will primarily be meeting with political, not religious, leaders.
"Just because you stand in a sacred place doesn't mean you hear sacred truths," said Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York. "He is obviously picking and choosing [from whom] he is going to hear about these religious traditions. Clearly this is more of a political trip than one of seeking deep religious understanding."
Another potential problem is that the recent controversies surrounding Trump have so distracted him that he has not been able to prepare adequately for the trip.
"You're wading into deep waters here," said Nicholson. "There are definitely ways Trump can make missteps, either in relating with people from these communities in his private conversations or making public mistakes in terms of what he says."
Pope Francis is an outspoken advocate of welcoming immigrants and refugees. Given Trump's contrary views, disagreement in those areas could get in the way of a friendly chat in Rome.
In Israel, Trump faces a potential controversy with the question of whether he allows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accompany him on a visit to the Western Wall in Old Jerusalem, claimed by both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
Trump's biggest challenge is likely to come in Saudi Arabia, where he is scheduled to give a speech urging Muslim leaders to promote "a peaceful vision of Islam." Much may depend on how that speech is received, especially given his suggestion during the presidential campaign that "Islam hates us."
"He needs to show that he respects Islam [and] that Muslims have dignity," said Nicholson. "For a long time, much of the conversation in the U.S. has been that anything Muslim is bad. I think one of the most important things for him to do is to show that he understands that Muslims have a long and ancient and distinguished past, and that he respects it. I think one of the driving factors in the Islamic world is a feeling that they are not respected."
The challenges notwithstanding, Nicholson and others are willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this trip.
"He understands what drives people on the street," Nicholson said. "It's part of his populist genius."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF OBFUSC'S "INFINITE IS YR HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.