Pence’s Christmas Pilgrimage Is Canceled. His Next Mideast Move Is Complicated.

Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the Middle East has been postponed by at least one month.

CAIRO — Vice President Mike Pence’s planned visit to the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, ought to have had a particular poignancy in the days before Christmas.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

When he first floated the idea of a trip in October, Mr. Pence, an evangelical Christian, vowed to highlight the persecution of Christians at the hands of Islamic State extremists, and he scheduled meeting with several Christian leaders, which was sure to play well with his conservative American base.

“Christianity now faces an exodus in the Middle East unrivaled since the days of Moses,” he said in a speech sprinkled with biblical references. “Help is on the way.”

But then on Dec. 6, President Trump recognizedJerusalem as the capital of Israel, smashing seven decades of American policy and provoking violent protests. One by one, Christian leaders publicly canceled their meetings with Mr. Pence.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority — a critical figure in the Trump administration’s ambitious plans for a sweeping Middle East peace deal — also canceled.

Then Mr. Pence himself canceled the whole trip, saying he needed to stay in Washington to oversee an important tax reform vote — an assertion that drew a measure of skepticism.

A White House official also said it was “not practically possible” for Mr. Pence to travel because the tax vote would have pushed his trip against the Jewish holiday of Shabbat and Christmas.

Now, as he prepares for his tentatively rescheduled trip in mid-January, the unanimous chorus of rejection from Christian leaders bodes ominously for his ambitions for the visit.

Mr. Pence had hoped the trip would help end the storm of recrimination unleashed by Mr. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem and allow the administration to push forward with other priorities, like countering Iran and combating the Islamic State.

“This trip is part of kind of the ending of that chapter, and the beginning of what I will say is the next chapter,” a senior administration official told reporters during a background briefing in Washington on Friday.

Instead, opprobrium over Mr. Trump’s decision has sliced through political and sectarian lines across the Middle East, cutting into even the president’s most cherished alliances in the region.

Among the religious leaders who refused to meet Mr. Pence is the head of Al Azhar, Cairo’s ancient bastion of Sunni Muslim scholarship — a bold move unlikely to have been taken without at least tacit approval from President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, an otherwise staunch Trump ally.

That was a blow. The Trump administration has made much of the plight of the Copts, the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East, who have suffered a spate of devastating attacks on churches and buses filled with pilgrims this year.

Palestinians viewed Mr. Pence’s original delay with skepticism.

“Take it with a large grain of salt — he wanted a way out,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian lawmaker and a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee. “He knew he was not welcome.” Certainly, the optics would most likely have been poor.

In Bethlehem — where the Abbas-Pence meeting had been scheduled to take place, according to Palestinian officials — banners that read “Bethlehem refuses US vice president’s visit,” now hang over Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity.

On Sunday, a small group of Palestinian protesters burned photographs of Mr. Pence and his chief negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, in the square and stamped on them, according to witnesses.

And the regional wave of anger over the Jerusalem issue has yet to subside. A spokesman for Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic patriarch of Egypt, underscored the depth of feeling. “The pope will simply not sit down with anyone so long as this is the American position,” said the spokesman, Rev. Boules Haliem. “We will always stand with the people of Palestine.”

In Jerusalem itself, the patriarchs and leaders of 13 Christian churches said in a Christmas message on Wednesday that Mr. Trump’s decision “tramples on the mechanism that has maintained peace throughout the ages,” and warned it “will lead to a very dark reality.”

Even close American allies in the region have shown displeasure. On Monday, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, had to resort to America’s veto power to block a United Nations Security Council resolution, drafted by Egypt, that demanded Mr. Trump to rescind his decision on Jerusalem, and his plans to move the American Embassy there.

On Tuesday, Ms. Haley lashed out at allies who voted against her, warning on Twitter that “The US will be taking names.”

The public snubs from Christian leaders are a sign of the deep ideological gulf between American evangelicals like Mr. Pence, whose support for Israel is rooted in biblical prophesy, and the Christian communities that have lived in the area since the time of Jesus himself.

The conservative evangelical leaders who endorsed Mr. Trump in his run for the White House say they made it clear to him early in the campaign that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was one of their top priorities, right up there with opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

In multiple meetings at the White House with Mr. Trump, Mr. Pence and their aides, these evangelical advisers said, they repeatedly pressed Mr. Trump to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and to move the American Embassy there, and were promised it would happen. Mr. Pence became a main conduit for these religious leaders.

“I definitely believe the decision would not have happened without the influence of evangelicals who are in communication with the White House,” said the Rev. Johnnie Moore, an evangelical writer who has become a spokesman for the evangelical advisers to the Trump administration. “It has been an issue of priority for a long time.”

Their reasons are both theological and political. Evangelicals believe in the biblical prophecy that God promised the land of Israel — including modern-day Jerusalem — to Abraham and his descendants. They also believe in the prophecy that the Jews must return to Israel from the diaspora before Jesus will return — but evangelical leaders insist that these “end times” prophecies are not a major factor driving their passion on the issue.

Palestinian Christians do not identify with the evangelicals’ vision. Though the list of Christian representatives originally scheduled to meet Mr. Pence had not yet been completed, some, according to one Palestinian official, had been curious to meet him for a theological argument. When they heard that the meeting was off, he said, none were particularly disappointed.

“To declare Jerusalem as the capital based on some biblical argument is a dangerous thing,” said Father Jamal Khader, the Catholic parish priest of Ramallah. “He’s wanting to separate Christians from the rest of the community. But we are part of the community.”

It is unclear if any Palestinians would ultimately have met with Mr. Pence quietly, in Jerusalem. But by Wednesday, Mr. Abbas had left on what appeared to be a hastily scheduled trip to Saudi Arabia. Expected in France on Friday, he is scheduled to be back in time to attend the traditional Christmas Eve Mass in Bethlehem on Sunday.

“I don’t agree with an ideology that looks at Christians as Westerners, or wants us to side against Muslims,” Father Khader added. “No — we lived together for 1,400 years, and we can live with them now.”

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