Priests at the church US President Donald Trump visited moments after threatening to deploy the US army to tackle “domestic terror” during ongoing protests have claimed they were abruptly teargassed along with other protesters to make way for the president.
Gini Gerbasi, a local rector who was at St John's Church in Lafayette Square, where Mr Trump was pictured on Monday (local time) holding up a bible, said she was forced from the place of worship by police for the president’s impromptu visit.
Her claims come as Mr Trump again on Tuesday visited another place of Catholic prominence, prompting calls he is misusing religious symbols during his response to the protests.
Gerbasi accused police of turning “holy ground into a battleground”.
She had came to the church, where she used to work, with about 20 other priests to join the peaceful protests, while handing out water and snacks to protesters calling for an end to racial injustice and police brutality.
Yet she claims as the group of priests began to pack away for Washington’s 7pm curfew, police swooped in.
“I was suddenly coughing from the tear gas. We heard those explosions and people would drop to the ground because you weren’t sure what it was,” Gerbasi told Religious News Service.
Bishop at the church, Mariann Budde, told The Washington Post they had no prior warning of Mr Trump’s visit and is “outraged” by the president using “one of our churches as a prop”.
Taking to Facebook after the incident, Gerbasi detailed the events prior to Mr Trump’s “photo opportunity”.
“We were literally driven off of the St John's, Lafayette Square patio with tear gas and concussion grenades and police in full riot gear,” she explained.
“I am shaken, not so much by the taste of tear gas and the bit of a cough I still have, but by the fact that that show of force was for a photo opportunity.
“The patio of St John's, Lafayette square had been holy ground today. A place of respite and laughter and water and granola bars and fruit snacks. But that man turned it into a battle ground first, and a cheap political stunt second.”
Trump’s second religious stunt in as many days
Mr Trump toured a Catholic shrine on Tuesday in his second straight religious-themed appearance, prompting calls he is misusing religious symbols for partisan purposes.
The White House said the president and first lady Melania Trump were observing a “moment of remembrance,” laying a wreath in a quiet visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine.
On Tuesday’s drive to the shrine, Mr Trump’s motorcade sped past National Guard members deployed around the World War II Memorial.
Some onlookers along the route booed, held “Black lives matter” signs or made obscene gestures as the convoy rolled past.
Washington Archbishop Wilton D Gregory said he was “baffled” by Trump’s visit to the shrine.
He called it “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.”
Gregory said the late pope was an “ardent defender” of human rights.
“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,” Gregory said in a statement.
On Monday, Mr Trump vowed to deploy the US military to America’s own cities to quell a rise of violent protests, including ransacking stores and burning police cars.
He offered little recognition of the anger coursing through the country as he demanded a harsher crackdown on the mayhem that has erupted following the death of George Floyd.
Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him down and pressed Floyd’s neck with his knee as the man pleaded that he couldn’t breathe.
Violent demonstrations have raged in scores of American cities, marking a level of unrest unseen for decades.
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