Gloves off as Donald Trump heads to Vatican to meet man-of-the-poor Pope Francis

US President Donald Trump arrived at the Vatican for talks with one of his most high-profile critics, Pope Francis.
Pope Francis stands with US President Donald Trump during a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017.PHOTO: AFP
An Italian police officer holding back traffic and pedestrians near the Vatican in Rome on May 23. Police are performing security operations ahead of the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Pope Francis.PHOTO: EPA

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Billionaire President Donald Trump heads to the Vatican on Wednesday (May 24) to meet man-of-the-poor Pope Francis, with all eyes on whether they will end their sparring to find common ground.

The two leaders have been at odds over issues from migration to climate change, staking out starkly opposing positions through the media, most notably in 2016 while Trump was campaigning for the US presidency.

But there is a potential for reconciliation: Back in 2013, noting the pontiff's first Christmas as head of the Catholic Church, Trump tweeted that "the new pope is a humble man, very much like me, which probably explains why I like him so much!" And Francis promised this month that he "won't judge" the former TV personality before hearing him out.

Security will be tight in the world's smallest state, with Swiss Guards joined by anti-terrorism police and sniffer dogs in the wake of the suicide attack at a concert in Manchester, Britain, on Monday claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

During his campaign, Trump evoked the spectre of an ISIS attack on the Vatican, saying that "if and when" it happens "the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president".

'Historic visit'

 

Pope Francis asks Donald Trump to be peacemaker, gives him environmental letter

VATICAN CITY (REUTERS) - Pope Francis urged United States President Donald Trump to be a peacemaker at their highly anticipated first meeting on Wednesday (May 24), and Trump promised he would not forget the pontiff's message.

Under clear blue skies, Trump, who exchanged sharp words with the pope during the US election campaign last year, received a tribute from the Swiss Guard in a Vatican courtyard when he arrived to meet the pope.

Trump entered a small elevator taking him to the third floor of the Apostolic Palace and, after a long ceremonial walk past frescoed corridors, shook the pope's hand at the entrance to the private study, which the frugal pope uses only for official occasions.

Pope Francis smiled faintly as he greeted Trump outside the study and was not as gregarious as he sometimes is with visiting heads of state.

Trump, seeming subdued, said "it is a great honour."

Even when the two were sitting at the pope's desk in the presence of photographers and reporters, the pope avoided the kind of small talk that usually occurs before the media is ushered out.

The two talked privately for about 30 minutes with translators.

Both men looked far more relaxed at the end of the private meeting, with the pope smiling and joking with Trump and his wife Melania.

Pope Francis gave the president a small sculptured olive tree and told him through the interpreter that it symbolised peace. "It is my desire that you become an olive tree to construct peace," the Pope said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter.

Trump responded: "We can use peace."

Pope Francis also gave Trump a signed copy of his 2017 peace message whose title is "Nonviolence - A Style of Politics for Peace," and a copy of his 2015 encyclical letter on the need to protect the environment from the effects of climate change. "Well, I'll be reading them," Trump said.

Trump's softer stance on environmental regulations is at odds with Pope Francis' view that climate change is caused mostly by human activity.

PARTING PROMISE

Trump gave the pope a boxed set of five first edition books by slain US civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

As Trump and the pope said goodbye at the door of the study, Trump told the pope: "Thank you, thank you. I won't forget what you said."

The meeting with the pope was the third stop on a nine-day foreign tour due to end on Saturday, and part of his world tour of religions after meeting leaders of Muslim nations in Saudi Arabia and visiting holy sites in Jerusalem.

While his talks in Saudi Arabia and Israel were mostly friendly, the meeting between the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the thrice-married, blunt-spoken Trump had the potential to be a little more confrontational.

The pope said last year a man who thinks about building walls and not bridges is "not Christian," a sharp reprimand for Trump's vow to build a wall along the US border with Mexico.

Trump said it was "disgraceful" of the Argentine-born pope, who represents just over half of the world's two billion Christians, to question his faith.

"If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS' ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president," Trump said during the campaign.

The Vatican also took a dim view of Trump's anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric, although he softened his tone considerably in a major speech in Riyadh.

Part of Trump's motivation for meeting the pope was to dramatise how the three major religions should rally against the threat from Islamist militants.

Trump at first did not plan to stop in Rome during his visit to Europe, which some in the Vatican saw as a snub. When he changed his mind, the Vatican squeezed him in at 8.300am on a Wednesday morning, an unusual day and an unusually early time.

After the meeting, Francis held his weekly audience with the general public in St Peter's Square.

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VATICAN CITY (REUTERS) - Pope Francis urged United States President Donald Trump to be a peacemaker at their highly anticipated first meeting on Wednesday (May 24), and Trump promised he would not forget the pontiff's message.
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Trump's visit to the Vatican is part of his first trip abroad as president, and follows an initial leg in Saudi Arabia and a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"No president has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslims faiths all on one trip," said US National Security Adviser HR McMaster, describing it as a "truly historic" visit.

"He will bring a message of tolerance and of hope to billions."

With his poll numbers at a record low for a new president, Trump may be hoping to boost his popularity by rubbing shoulders with the man who made the cover of Time and Rolling Stone.

At their meeting in the papal library at 0630 GMT (2:30pm Singapore time), the leaders are expected to discuss issues such as efforts to promote world peace, support for religious freedom and the fight against abortion.

'Play well with voters'

Trump may have sparked tensions with his attempts at a travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority nations, but on Sunday he softened his tone on Islam, rejecting the idea of a battle between religions, a sentiment the pope shares.

Elected in November last year, Trump has already axed rules protecting tax-funded financing of family planning clinics that offer abortions, and has filled an empty spot on the Supreme Court with an anti-abortion justice.

He may also win points thanks to his daughter and high-profile adviser Ivanka Trump, who has made a commitment to fighting human trafficking and will meet victims in Rome after her papal introduction.

But human rights groups are urging Francis to raise US use of the death penalty and the issues of torture and targeted assassinations with the US president.

Trump's stance on these issues "violates the sanctity of life that people of all faiths and none hold so dear," said Maya Foa, director of the British judicial rights group Reprieve.

And having vowed to make persecuted Christians in the Middle East a foreign policy priority, Trump may be asked by Francis to divert some US humanitarian spending to churches in Iraq and Syria, Vatican expert John L. Allen Jr. said.

If he agreed, it would be "a rare bit of positive news for Trump - one that should also play well with the religious voters" who elected him, he wrote on Cruxnow.com.

Not Christian?

The elephant in the room will be the president's planned border wall with Mexico. The Argentine pope has condemned the idea of using walls to keep out foreigners and slammed those who do as "not Christian".

Trump, who grew up in a Presbyterian family but is not a regular churchgoer, said the accusation was "disgraceful".

And while the pontiff is an ardent supporter of efforts to combat climate change, Trump has pledged to pull the United States out of the COP21 Paris Agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The president, who will head to Brussels later Wednesday before returning to Italy for a G7 meeting, did not initially plan to meet the pope.

When the unexpected, last-minute request came, the Vatican squeezed him into an early slot.

Holy See sources said the president would have to enter the papal palace via a side door because the weekly Wednesday mass in Saint Peter's Square takes priority.