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UPDATE: WORLD has updated this story to reflect White House and National Park Service comments about the use of chemical agents.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday to advance international religious freedom, redirecting funding along with diplomatic priorities and foreign aid to protect religious groups overseas.
The order calls for spending at least $50 million annually to prevent and respond to threats and attacks on religious groups, improve security for houses of worship, and preserve historic religious communities abroad.
Trump announced the new initiative less than a day after a presidential photo-op at a historic church across from the White House drew condemnation from some local and national religious leaders.
Police in riot gear and National Guard troops on Monday used chemical agents and smoke bombs to disperse a peaceful crowd in Lafayette Park protesting the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. The crowd included African-American clergy who gathered outside the 200-year-old St. John’s Episcopal Church, which sat damaged and boarded up after rioters set fire to the building the night before.
The explosions went off without warning, sending panic into the crowd, just as the president addressed the nation in the Rose Garden nearby, calling himself “an ally of peaceful protesters” but threatening to deploy the U.S. military to quell violent rioters and looting.
The White House has since said officers at Lafayette Park used “chemical agents”—not tear gas—to disperse the crowd less than half an hour before curfew. The National Park Service (NPS) said its officers used “smoke canisters and pepper balls.” Although journalists called it “tear gas,” experts consider pepper balls less harsh than other airborne chemicals often used as riot control agents. But if you think of chile peppers in a gaseous form hitting your eyes and throats, you can imagine how the protesters felt. Both the NPS and White House say some protesters began throwing items at officers when they tried to clear the park, but several people who were in the crowd dispute that claim.
Following the speech in the Rose Garden, Trump and members of his Cabinet took a solemn walk to the historic church, and the president turned to cameras, holding a Bible in the air, before returning to the White House.
Some of Trump’s informal group of evangelical advisers said the moment was appropriate and symbolic. “By holding up the Bible, he was showing us that it teaches that, yes, God hates racism, it’s despicable—but God also hates lawlessness,” Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress told The Atlantic.
Others echoed Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who called the church visit a “photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.”
The Episcopal bishop of Washington, Mariann Budde, said Trump’s arrival at St. John’s, which she said happened without advance warning, left her “outraged.”
She told Religion News Service: “He didn’t come to address the deep wounds that are being expressed through peaceful protest by the thousands upon thousands.”
The pushback from clergy followed the president on Tuesday, as he and first lady Melania Trump visited the St. John Paul II National Shrine shortly before signing the executive order. The White House timed the visit to coincide with the June 2 anniversary of the Catholic pope’s historic return to Poland in 1979. The papal tour turned out masses of Poles and led to a spiritual and political revolution that helped usher in the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War.
The Catholic archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, who is African-American, told The Washington Post that Pope John Paul “would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate [protesters] for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”
The American Bible Society, in a not-so-veiled statement responding to Trump’s gesture, said: “In this time of economic uncertainty and generational pain, we should be careful not to use the Bible as a political symbol, one more prop in a noisy news cycle.” The group said it would give free a Bible to anyone requesting one for the next two weeks—calling “Americans of all faiths or no faith at all to look beyond the symbol and read the Bible for yourself.”
A senior White House official told reporters by phone on Tuesday that the Trumps’ visit to the shrine was meant “to honor a true giant of history and one of the greatest champions of freedom the world has ever known.” The president “has picked up that mantle of championing freedom around the world,” the official said, speaking on condition of not being named.
The White House planned the shrine visit and release of the executive order before protests against racial injustice and police brutality erupted across the country. The official did not take questions on the controversy surrounding Trump’s St. John’s Church appearance.
Religious freedom advocates stress the importance of the executive order, which comes as China continues to oppress individual freedom, most recently in Hong Kong. It also coincides with the rise of new Islamic State terror alliances in Africa, carrying out increasing attacks on Christians in Burkina Faso, Mozambique, and elsewhere.
One attack this week in Nigeria left dead Emmanuel Bileya, a Christian Reformed Church in Nigeria pastor, and wife Juliana, who leave behind eight children and a growing congregation.
The executive order directs the State Department and other federal agencies to reexamine U.S. foreign policy and train U.S. government employees abroad on the importance of protecting religious beliefs.
For those who violate religious freedom, it calls for restricting visas and imposing sanctions under the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act and other existing statutes.
“America will always be in solidarity with religious believers everywhere,” said the White House official. The spokesperson did not take questions on specific countries and threats.
What the executive order does not do is soften a White House clamp on refugee admissions or visa restrictions that have virtually zeroed out asylum for victims of religious persecution. Since the 2020 fiscal year began in October, the United States has admitted 3,440 Christian refugees from countries identified by Open Doors for persecuting religious believers—down from more than 17,000 in 2016 in a trend since Trump took office.
Still, Trump’s order encouraged international religious freedom advocates. “The executive order emphasizes that religious freedom is not just a nice-to-have human right,” said Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute and former director of the State Department’s international religious freedom office. “It is a moral and national security imperative."
Farr said the order offers “welcome assurance” that the government will take seriously attacks on religious believers and “takes important steps to integrate religious freedom into U.S. diplomatic efforts.”
Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, said the order “will give us more active, energetic pursuit in countries of particular concern or ‘Special Watch List’ countries within the State Department.”
Farr didn’t understand the condemnation by Archbishop Gregory of Trump’s shrine visit, coming as Catholics around the world commemorated Pope John Paul II’s 100th birthday: “Whether you like the president or revile him, condemning him for honoring this great saint—whose defense of religious freedom for all people, everywhere is worth honoring—is short-sighted.”