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Christian worshippers in Israel surround the Edicule as they take part in a Sunday Easter mass procession in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalems Old City.(Photo by: REUTERS)
Will Trump enter religious tug-of-war in trip to Holy Sepulchre?
The US president has to navigate a religious minefield in his visit of the holy site.

According to an insider in one of the churches planning the visit of US President Donald Trump to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Monday, potential religious complications were smoothed over at the last minute.

Representatives of the Catholic, Armenian and Greek-Orthodox church will meet the president but questions remain about the route he will take and the inclusion of a scout troop and choirs. It may take on more importance and meaning after questions emerged over whether Trump will visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Trump is expected to visit the Sepulchre in the early afternoon after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin. It is not usual for sitting US presidents to visit the Holy Sepulchre. Bill Clinton did it in 2005 after he was out of office, but a source in one of the churches couldn’t recall any other visits in recent memory. It is more usual for them to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  

Because Jerusalem is so fraught with political and religious tensions, they are warned off the visit by their local diplomats. “Normally if a president wants to go to the Sepulchre, they [diplomats] will tell him it is a bad idea,” said the church insider.

Due to the uncertainty of protocol surrounding the visit the Greek Orthodox, according to the source, asked that scouts accompany the president sometime after he enters Jaffa gate. This may cause tensions with the Armenians who see any representation by the Greeks as an infringement of their rights. Since Trump is visiting the Vatican after Israel, the Catholics may be less concerned about needing face-time with the president. Security will be very tight for the visit, with parts of the Old City being closed down from the early morning Monday.

The visit has faced a struggle in planning due to its uncertainty and details were being worked out to the last minute. Often the churches have months, even the better part of a year, to plan a high profile visit, such as the one by Pope John Paul II. If all goes according to plan, according to the source, Trump will be accompanied by the Orthodox Arab scouts to the courtyard of the church where he will meet representatives of the church, likely to include Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian, Custos of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton, and Greek-Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III.

The church will be empty of worshippers and there are questions as to whether a carpet will be placed between the entrance and the Stone of Unction where worshippers traditionally kneel. Trump was quoted in Politico in 2011 as saying he was a Presbyterian. He will receive a tour of the Holy Sepulchre, which has recently had restorations at the tomb of Jesus.  According to the church source three choirs, one from the Catholics, Orthodox and Armenians, will be present.

The US president has to navigate a religious minefield in his visit. In 2011 Armenian and Greek-Orthodox priests came to blows in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem over accusation one group was encroaching on the other.

Trump may just want a tour of the holiest church in the Christian world, but these groups take seriously every step and handshake and who is represented so that each church’s rights and privileges are maintained and they are properly represented.

Although Israel provides some security for the visit, there are issues of coordination involved because the US does not officially recognize Israel’s sovereignty in the Old City or the West Bank. Here the Jordanians likely come into play and Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammad’s close relationship with the churches and Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate. This is important for coordination and ensuring it runs smoothly in what is a sensitive site.

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