Trump’s road does not lead to Rome — or to Pope Francis
Missing Vatican trip off Italy schedule marks break with presidential tradition

 Donald Trump has no plans to meet Pope Francis during his maiden trip to Italy as president next month, according to officials © Reuters; Getty Images

When Donald Trump visits Italy for the first time as US president next month, one meeting will be conspicuously absent from his itinerary: he has no plans to meet the Pope, according to US and Vatican officials.

Mr Trump will be in Sicily for the G7 summit. Unless he changes his mind, he would become the first US president since Franklin D Roosevelt to make his maiden official voyage to Italy without seeing the pontiff.

Officials on both sides insist that the lack of a meeting should not be seen as a snub by Mr Trump or Pope Francis. They deny that it reflects a wish to avoid an awkward encounter between two leaders at odds over big global challenges such as migration and climate change and who clashed indirectly during the 2016 presidential campaign.“

The meeting will happen, just probably not this time,” said one Vatican official.

Logistical difficulties are a plausible explanation. Sicily is roughly an hour’s flight from Rome, so Mr Trump would have to go out of his way to visit the Vatican, unlike his predecessors who have gone to the Eternal City for meetings with their Italian counterparts. In addition, the summit is sandwiched between a Nato meeting beforehand in Brussels and the Memorial day holiday in the US.

Nevertheless, the tension between the two men is evident. Unlike Mr Trump, who signed executive orders halting immigration from several mainly Muslim countries and opposes the Paris climate deal, Pope Francis has been an ardent supporter of liberal migration policies that do not discriminate on grounds of religion and of bold action to tackle climate change.

Pope Francis even made a trip to the US-Mexico border during the Republican primary contest last year, which was seen as a direct challenge to Mr Trump.

When he said that “a person who only thinks about building walls . . . is not a Christian”, Mr Trump responded that the comments were “disgraceful” and suggested the Pope would be thankful to have him as president because he could defend the Vatican from Isis terrorists.

In recent months, the US Catholic bishops’ conference has explicitly attacked some of Mr Trump’s actions, including the travel ban and the executive order on the environment, which rolled back a crackdown on carbon emissions from power plants.

Recently in Rome, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, a close ally of Pope Francis, said that he was “full of hope that things will change” when it comes to Mr Trump. “Luckily, there are countervailing voices who disagree [with him],” Cardinal Turkson added. A day later, though, he rowed back. “Putting the Vatican against President Trump is at the very least exaggerated,” he said. “The US has a valid, democratic government that needs to be respected.”

One US official agreed. “There is a narrative of conflict in the media between the president and the Pope but the Church is spiritual and ecclesiastical, it’s not political.”

As well as social issues such as abortion, where Pope Francis may be more aligned with Mr Trump than he was with Mr Obama, there could also be some areas of convergence, such as on fighting human trafficking and crafting a diplomatic solution to troubles in the Middle East and Latin America.

Mr Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama met Benedict XVI in 2009 on his first trip to Italy, and before him George W Bush met John Paul II in 2001 on the first of several visits to Rome. Back in 1969, Richard Nixon dashed off to France to meet president Charles De Gaulle after meeting Italian leaders in Rome but quickly flew back to see Pope Paul VI. The first Roman Catholic US president, John F Kennedy, met Pope Paul VI shortly after his election in the summer of 1963.

It was Mr Roosevelt who visited Italy for the last time in an official capacity without seeing the Pope. In 1943, at the height of the second world war, he travelled from Malta to allied military installations in Castelvetrano, Sicily, then dashed off to Senegal. While the Vatican was technically neutral at the time, Rome was under German occupation.

Way back in 1919, Woodrow Wilson was the first US president to ever travel to Italy, seeing Benedict XV while there.

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