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The meeting May 24 between two opposing titans, U.S. President Donald Trump and Pope Francis, attracted attention mainly for the stylistic and substantive differences between the two men, not because anything serious was expected to come out of their abbreviated 30-minute encounter. Indeed, considering past heated exchanges between the Pope and Trump, it might seem surprising the Vatican was added to the president’s whirlwind itinerary at all. In February 2016, Francis implicitly challenged the then-presidential candidate’s faith by telling reporters that “a person who only thinks of building walls…and not building bridges is not Christian.” Trump responded by calling the Pope’s comments “disgraceful,” only to hear Francis repeat a new version of the charge just a few months ago. But throughout his papacy, Francis has urged encounter and dialogue, so it is in character that he agreed to look for doors “at least a little bit open…and go on, step by step” with Trump.
Two factors put the antagonists together. The first is tradition: every U.S. president since Harry Truman has visited the Holy See while in Italy. (Trump was there attending a G–7 summit in Sicily.) The second is that the White House cast the first portion of his first presidential trip abroad as a tour of religious homelands. So Trump’s Vatican visit was the final act in a theatrical production that opened in Riyadh.
In the end, though, the framing might have been a problem. Indeed, it perturbed the Vatican last week that Trump was so triumphalist in Saudi Arabia, one of the few countries to have no diplomatic relations with the Holy See. From the Kingdom’s treatment of Christians living within its borders, to its international export of intolerance, to the devastation wrought by its war in Yemen, Francis and the Vatican take a much more critical line toward Saudi Arabia than does the Trump administration. U.S. administrations have collaborated on a variety of diplomatic initiatives with the Holy See, such as normalization of U.S.–Cuban relations in 2014. Church officials worldwide also regularly share information with U.S. diplomats. But the whole Vatican apparatus is leery of an American foreign policy bonded to the Saudi absolute monarchy.
A key source of tension between the House of Saud and the Holy See is Saudi limits on Christian religious expression. Some 1.5 million Catholics currently reside in the Kingdom, most of them guest workers from the Philippines. They have no way to practice their faith. Mass is only available to Christian diplomats at a few foreign embassies and is off limits to foreign national laborers. (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI met with King Abdullah in 2007, inspiring discussion of opening a Catholic Church, but nothing came of it.) Non-Muslim signs of religious devotion, from rosaries to Bibles, are banned. Meanwhile, the Holy See has collaborated with governments in Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, where Christian populations—and tolerance of Christianity—have grown over the past ten years, to establish Catholic places of worship.
A key source of tension between the House of Saud and the Holy See is Saudi limits on Christian religious expression.
Second, Catholic experts on terrorism consider the official Saudi faith of Wahhabism, an eighteenth-century Salafi movement founded on the peninsula, to be a destabilizing source of extremism. For the Holy See, Wahhabism’s threat is existential: Wahhabi intolerance and money fuel violence against Christians and other communities across the Middle East and beyond. To counter this threat, the Vatican is cultivating relationships with non-Wahabbist Islamic cultural centers such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which Francis visited last month. Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, visited Francis in Rome last year, an especially significant development given that Tayeb led a boycott against the Vatican in 2011 after Benedict commented on anti-Christian violence in Egypt. Many hope that the renewed relationship will give new momentum to Christian–Muslim dialogue.
Wariness about Wahhabism also applies to Syria, where local Catholic leaders remain skeptical regarding a Saudi-backed regime change. It is a simple calculus: Christian communities, whether Orthodox or Catholic, have been protected by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad before that; Sunni extremism could bring Sharia law and second-class status for Christians. In the Church’s view, it does not bode well for Trump to plant himself so squarely in the Saudi camp.
Third, the Vatican has opposed Saudi Arabia’s particularly aggressive war in Yemen, a relatively tolerant country with some respect for religious freedom. The Vatican classifies Saudi Arabia’s bombing in Yemen as an archetypical “unjust war”—inessential to the country’s survival, launched without negotiating first, and ruthlessly devastating to non-combatants. In an air campaign highly dependent on U.S. support, Saudi Arabia has dropped cluster bombs and other devastating munitions on Yemeni civilian populations, including schools and medical clinics.
The Holy See has had diplomatic relations with Yemen since 1998. The main purpose of bilateral relations has been to promote the best interests of local faithful, including clerics and missionaries; so, apart from political turmoil, the Vatican is concerned about the war devastating living conditions. Catholics in Yemen have suffered as a result of Saudi Arabia’s relentless bombing campaign and Islamist extremist violence that has increased especially in the southern region of Yemen, controlled by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Saudi ally who fled Yemen’s capital, Sana, in 2015 and set up shop in Aden.
Like other civilians, Catholics in Yemen have suffered disastrously. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, for example, have been active in Yemen since 1973, the first Catholic order in the country in hundreds of years. The sisters run a home for children and have helped organize an impoverished settlement of lepers. The order maintains four centers despite increased persecution: in March 2016, ISIS terrorists murdered four of the sisters and eight workers at a nursing home in Aden because they were Christian. The jihadists also kidnapped a Silesian priest, Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who remains in captivity. Among other sites hit by Saudi aerial bombing was one of the few Catholic churches in the country. Vatican Radio has emphasized the fatal impact on Yemeni children; more than one million of whom are going hungry because of the war.
Analysts typically describe the Saudi–Yemeni conflict in terms of Sunni–Shia rivalry, with Saudi Arabia facing off against the Houthi rebels, mainly Zaydi Muslims, who, at least originally, had loose ties to Shia Iran. Although the Vatican has no link to the Houthi movement, it is generally sympathetic to Shia Islam, which has highly educated clerics organized hierarchically, a theology with Christian parallels, and a general respect for the Catholic Church and its faithful. The Vatican has developed a sympathetic relationship with Iran’s religious leadership and was highly supportive of the U.S.–Iranian nuclear deal. The modern diplomatic relationship between the two dates back to 1954, and was maintained throughout the Islamic Revolution. Iran’s embassy in Rome is one of the largest, most active missions to the Holy See, which sees Iran as key to solving the crisis in Syria.
The last source of tension between Trump and the pontiff was Trump’s announcement of a $110 billion arms deal with the Kingdom. The Catholic Church fears its believers, local leaders, and charity workers are at risk of experiencing Saudi-funded violence in a growing portion of the Middle East. Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, criticized Trump’s decision on Twitter the day the president landed in Rome. And Francis himself has been quite vocal in his belief that arms merchants such as the United States are morally culpable for the death and destruction said arms cause. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States is the world’s largest weapons merchant, furnishing 33 percent of total arms exports from 2012 to 2016, with 47 percent of its sales going to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the world’s second largest buyer (behind India) is the United States’ biggest client.
To Francis, arms fuel war. “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” he asked in his 2015 speech to Congress. “Simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood… it is our duty to stop the arms trade.” It is also why the Pope presented Trump with peace-themed gifts on his visit: a medallion depicting war as a rupture of the earth; a signed copy of his New Year’s Day message, “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace;” his signature encyclical Laudato Si, which posits peace as a facet of the common good that all need to seek; and Evangelii Gaudium, an apostolic exhortation that describes peace as not just the absence of conflict, but rather the product of a constant cultivation of justice, unity, and human dignity.
Francis often refers to a “piecemeal” World War III currently underway. In the Vatican’s view, rather than defusing wartime footing, the Trump administration’s support of Riyadh has stoked Islam’s dangerous Sunni–Shia divide. In his steady counsel against sectarian conflict, Pope Francis has found allies among Muslim states such as Oman, Pakistan, and Qatar who resent Saudi Arabia’s domination and what they view as its anti-Iran obsession. Of course, Francis has only begun the dialogue with Trump. Time is always on the side of an institution that measures it in millennia.