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Religious liberty order no walk in the park for Trump

President issues executive order on religious freedom under a cloud of church-based controversy

Religious liberty order no walk in the park for Trump

President Donald Trump walks past police in Lafayette Park after visiting outside St. John’s Church across from the White House in Washington on Monday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

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.”

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.

Comments

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  • Janet B
    Posted: Thu, 06/04/2020 12:08 pm

    Did the President order the use of the tear gas, etc.? Or was that the decision of the police department itself?

    Let's face it: those who do not like the President will never see any good in anything he does.

  • Idaho ob
    Posted: Thu, 06/04/2020 03:38 pm

    You can’t hide your Trump derangement and hatred.  There was no tear gas or rubber bullets to move the crowds back. A lie that even the left acknowledges. You end every article with twice as much criticism of Trump, this is so evident. We will have to find other sources for unbiased truth .....not World.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Thu, 06/04/2020 10:58 pm

    Idaho ob: Were you there? Just curious how you can be so certain?

  • Idaho ob
    Posted: Thu, 06/04/2020 05:49 pm

    Don’t further the lie. There was NO tear gas used period. By anyone. The lies being repeated by msm is unbelievable.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Thu, 06/04/2020 10:59 pm

    There's also people who deny that the Holocaust happened, that Sandy Hook Elementary was the scene of carnage wreaked upon children, and even that the Twin Towers collapsed.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Thu, 06/04/2020 06:54 pm

    Trump was highlighting the violence of the "protesters" showing how little regard they have for sacred things. We as Christians must understand that these people who protest are against law and order and don't respect Christianity. In fact, they attempt to paint us as racists and would be glad to eliminate us.  Some naive Christians think that they need to placate these haters of the faith by groveling before them confessing their "white privilege" and the racism of past generations.  
     

    The people pushing the "white privilege" are seeking power and economic advantage. As the white guilt grows, they can demand more money for minorities in education, research, business and in government. More companies pay more money to these radical organizations to keep them from targeting them and calling them racist. Even within society they target individuals who speak out against this race racketeering  and force them to recant, apologize and promote their cause. If they don't then they will demand that they are fired so there is great pressure to comply. 

    Rather than go along with this evil we need to speak out clearly about what is going on and why it is evil. For example, if we really want to help the black community we will push for law and order and won't let rioters destroy their businesses and communities. We won't pretend that the BLM agenda of eliminating the police force is rational or even should be heard. We won't pretend there is this vast racist plot by police to kill them when this is clearly untrue. When there is a bad cop, then we need to speak out against them and demand real just and not what the angry mob demands. 

  • RP
    Posted: Thu, 06/04/2020 08:27 pm

    What are your sources for the paragraphs below? This is a genuine question and not a criticism guised as a question. I've read various reports that say tear gas was used and others that say no tear gas was used. I've read reports that say the protestors were peaceful and others that say they weren't peaceful. The Park Police says that no tear gas was used and that at least some of the protestors weren't peaceful. Here's the link: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/uspp/6_2_20_statement_from_acting_chief_monahan.htm

    Thanks for the help. Here are the paragraphs in question...

    "Police in riot gear and National Guard troops on Monday used tear gas 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."

  • CH
    Posted: Thu, 06/04/2020 09:42 pm

    Similar to some of the other commenters, I too am confused and concerned that there is absolutely no mention of the National Park Service's statement (https://www.nps.gov/subjects/uspp/6_2_20_statement_from_acting_chief_monahan.htm?mod=article_inline) regarding their approach and reasons for clearing Lafayette Park.  Rather, what I read in the article is the same one-sided information that I read from most other "news" sources.  I don't understand how that can be, coming from an organization that prides itself in being accurate and even handed in its approach to journalism.  WORLD is one of the last places I have to go to for getting the news without the personal editorial and agenda so prevalent these days.  Please, PLEASE don't fail in this regard.

  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Thu, 06/04/2020 11:34 pm

    If the president had stayed home they would have complained "Why didn't he make a statement or something?"  If he goes out, they will complain.  It is impossible to please all of the people all of the time.  He made a bold move, something he is good at.  Like it or leave it.  to Westcoast Grandma:  This is not along the same lines as Holocost deniers or Sandy Hook, that is ridiculous.  The media will say anything to make Trump look bad.  It is a good thing to doubt what one reads or hears on certain news channels.  

    Regarding taking a knee or bowing to someone for whatever reason:  My response would be:  "The only person I take a knee for or bow to is Jesus, you ain't him, so get lost!"  We have a constitutional right to peaceably assemble, not loot and riot, they should all be in jail!

  • RP
    Posted: Fri, 06/05/2020 10:05 pm

    Thank you for the addition of the comments from the Parks Service and the White House. There are definitely two sides to this story, and I'm glad to see World trying to be fair. Emotions are running high and rightfully so, but we still need truth. Sometimes the best we can do is tell both sides of the story understanding that reality is probably somewhere between.