President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., June 2 before he signed an executive order back at the White House to expand U.S. support for international religious freedom efforts.
The crosstown trip was excoriated by several Catholic leaders, including Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, who said he found 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” by allowing the visit.
The Trumps’ visit to the shrine in Northeast Washington came on the 41st anniversary of the start of St. John Paul II’s pilgrimage to his native Poland, the first trip by the pope during which he repeatedly addressed religious and political freedom.
The White House said the president offered no remarks during the visit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accompanied the Trumps during the brief stay at the shrine.
More than 100 people, including children and their parents, had gathered near the shrine and began chanting slogans calling for justice for George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis May 25.
The evening before the shrine visit, Trump walked from the White House to St. John Episcopal Church, which was set afire during protests May 31 that called for the nation to address racism and police violence.
Authorities fired flash-bang shells, gas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd that had gathered in Lafayette Square across from the White House so Trump could walk to the church, where he held up a Bible as photographers captured the scene.
The crowd was present in the park to protest the death of Floyd and other African American people at the hands of police.
Archbishop Gregory in his June 2 statement questioned the decision to disperse the protesters in such a manner.
The shrine issued a statement about the visit less than two hours after the president and first lady left. It said White House officials originally scheduled the visit “as an event for the president to sign an executive order related to global religious freedom.”
“This was fitting given St. John Paul II was a tireless advocate of religious liberty throughout his pontificate,” the statement said. “International religious freedom receives widespread bipartisan support, including unanimous passage of legislation in defense of persecuted Christians and religious minorities around the world.
“The shrine welcomes all people to come and pray and learn about the legacy of St. John Paul II,” it added.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the bishops would not comment on the event because it “was not ours.”
Returning to the White House, Trump signed an executive order during the noon hour that the White House described as prioritizing U.S. support for religious freedom worldwide.
The order calls for the U.S. to allocate at least $50 million annually for international religious freedom programs. It also would widen economic incentives to support countries that expand religious practice and address attempts to restrict religious practice. In addition, the order would align foreign assistance “to better reflect country circumstances,” restrict issuing visas and implement sanctions under the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which targets human rights abuses and global corruption. A final provision of the order would mandate more federal employees who work abroad to undergo international religious freedom training. —CNS