U.S. President Donald Trump at the Holy Sepulcher

The images of the President of the United States of America Donald Trump at the entrance to the Holy Sepulcher have made their way around the world. His private visit on May 22 to a symbolic place within Christendom highlighted the president’s visit to Israel and Palestine.

On the days leading up to his visit, helicopters were already flying over the Old City early in the morning and during the night. Their deafening noise did not stop until Trump’s departure. The number of Israeli soldiers all over the streets became greater from day to day so as to keep watch on the frenzied preparations, and the number reached its peak on Monday, May 22. On Sunday, some shops in the Christian neighborhood were closed and shut down, and finally all of the shops near the Basilica of the Resurrection and on the path to be taken by the U.S. President were shut down. According to the terminology of the security services the neighborhood had been “sterilized.”

Barriers and white awnings closed the streets at various points throughout the city. The surroundings of the Holy Sepulcher were armored, and armed soldiers guarded the barricades. For several hours, certain entrance gates into the Old City were closed, including the Jaffa Gate, by which the president entered to discover a deserted city.

This curfew situation led to a certain bitterness for the inhabitants of the city, as merchants were not able to resume their activities until the day after the visit.

The Holy Sepulcher was completely deserted as well. No tourists were allowed in and the bare minimum of religious were allowed in. The terraces overlooking the forecourt were also closed with the same white fabrics that are supposed to prevent shootings by possible snipers.

It was under these conditions that the American president visited the Holy Sepulcher. He was welcomed in front of the Basilica of the Resurrection by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Theophilus III, the Custos of Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, and the Armenian Patriarch, Nourhan Manougian. After shaking hands and welcoming the journalists, cameras and photographers were not allowed to continue on the visit. Peter Vasko, a Franciscan of the Custody of the Holy Land and President of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, who accompanied Trump into the Holy Sepulcher, told us what happened in the Church. “Trump arrived in Israel as a world leader but also as a pilgrim, and that is why he wanted to go to the Holy Sepulcher,” insisted Fr. Peter Vasko. “He is a Christian and his wife is a Slovenian Catholic .” The First Lady of the United States, was present, along with Ivanka, the president’s daughter, and her husband, Jared Kushner.

According to the Franciscan friar, Donald Trump was very impressed by the Holy Sepulcher. “The first thing I said to him was ‘How do we know that this is the right place?’ said Br. Peter Vasko after explaining that the two pagan temples, built to prevent the devotion by the early Christians, actually allowed this place to be preserved. Trump was very interested and is said to have replied “Now I understand why these two places are the exact places of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus.”

The Franciscan friar also stated that he had explained to Trump how to experience his visit to this Holy Place as a pilgrim: “Forget everything extra that you see in the Holy Sepulcher; come as the first disciples came and think of the place where you are. This can make a big difference.”

Trump stayed in the Holy Sepulcher for about 25 minutes and, accompanied by Br. Peter Vasko, visited the main places of devotion. “When went up to Calvary, the President seemed visibly touched, and I explained to him and to his wife where we were, and talked to them about the image of the Virgin of the Seven Sorrows and the Chapel of the Crucifixion, where Jesus was crucified. Then, we went to the Anointing Stone and then he entered the tomb.” As the friar explained, the couple’s entrance into the Sepulcher was the strongest moment emotionally speaking: “Trump paused for a few minutes to pray with his wife, and when he came out, he was spiritually touched. He was very pleased with his visit.”

“While he was in the Tomb, we sang,” explained Clovis Bettinelli, a friar from the International Theological Seminary of the Holy Savior in Jerusalem. “We were six Franciscans, six Armenians and six Greeks and we took took turns singing.” The Gregorian chants Vexilla regis, Aurora Caelum Purpura and Alleluia accompanied Trump’s visit.

The Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, according to the tradition for the distinguished guests, offered a symbolic gift.”‘We had a small relic, a small stone from the rock of the sepulcher, and we offered it to him,” said Br. Peter Vasko. “He was very happy, and we wanted to give him this little gift, inside of a box with the Custody’s emblem on it, as a souvenir of his visit to the Holy Sepulcher.”

The Custos of the Holy Land also had a short exchange with the President: “When I greeted him and welcomed him, I told him what the Greek Orthodox Patriarch had also expressed: here we pray for peace and we hope that others will work [toward] it.”

Beatrice Guarrera

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