President Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington before signing an order to promote religious freedom Tuesday as protesters, Democrats and clergy members accused him of exploiting symbols of faith for political gain amid nationwide protests.
Mr. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump laid a wreath and stood quietly in front of a statue of the late pope before entering the shrine in the northeast section of the capital.
It was Mr. Trump’s second visit to a Christian site in as many days.
Mr. Trump made a dramatic walk over to the St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House on Monday after he had vowed to marshal federal resources, if necessary, to crack down on protests that have spread nationwide after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
Shortly before he delivered the Rose Garden speech, flash-bang devices and what has been described as tear gas were deployed near protesters who had been congregating near the White House. The president held up a Bible but didn’t offer a prayer or reading in front of the church, which sustained some fire damage the day before.
Mr. Trump’s motorcade to the shrine Tuesday passed onlookers with signs saying “Black lives matter,” United we Stand, Divided we Fall” and “You Suck.” Others offered the president a one-fingered salute as the president arrived at the site near Catholic University.
Inside, the first couple visited the Luminous Mysteries Chapel, John Paul II Blood Relic, and the Madonna Icon, according to the White House.
Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory issued a statement blasting the visit in the wake of Monday’s scene at the Episcopal Church.
“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree,” he said. “Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”
The shrine tweeted a statement that did not address the controversy but suggested the White House initially scheduled the visit as a backdrop for the executive order signing. Mr. Trump returned to the White House before signing the order to “advance international religious freedom.”
The shrine said St. John Paul II was “a tireless advocate of religious liberty through his pontificate.”
“International religious freedom receives widespread bipartisan support, including unanimous passage of legislation in defense of persecuted Christians and religious minorities around the world,” it said. “The shrine welcomes all people to come and pray and learn about the legacy of St. John Paul II.”
Also Tuesday, Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington on Tuesday said Mr. Trump is welcome to pray at St. John’s near the White House but that she couldn’t abide the “symbolic” gesture from Mr. Trump outside of the church on Monday evening.
Some of Mr. Trump’s most ardent backers defended his stroll to the church.White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said it was a rebuke of those who set it on fire the previous night.
She also said the church, a historic fixture in Washington, did not belong to the Episcopal bishop.
“We don’t look into other people’s hearts and souls, and discern and judge what their faith is, why the President felt compelled to walk there, why he held that Bible,” Mrs. Conway told Fox News.
Mr. Trump has courted Evangelicals and conservative religious leaders as a vital bloc of support. He’s pushed their policy priorities and nominated judges they favor, though the president is more likely to be found on one of his golf courses each Sunday than in the church pews.
In 2016, he was mocked for referring to an epistle in the New Testament as “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians” during an address to Liberty University.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said he supported Mr. Trump’s walk to the church. He said faith is important as the nation seeks healing.
“I’m glad he did it,” he told C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” “And frankly, he doesn’t need the permission of the bishop to do so.”
• David Sherfinski contributed to this report.
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