Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump passed by protestors as they visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington Tuesday morning after more than a week of nationwide protests against police brutality due to the death of George Floyd.
The president’s visit to the shrine follows his brief visit Monday night to the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square where he took photos holding up a Bible. A fire was set by rioters in the nursery of the 200-year-old church Sunday evening and was put out Monday morning.
Across the nation, the protests have led to rioting, arson, looting of businesses and other violence — including vandalized churches.
Both President Trump’s visit to the JPII shrine and his visit to St. John’s have met criticism by some for the appearance of using the churches as photo-ops amid a time of serious unrest. The Archbishop of Canterbury criticized his visit to St. John’s Monday and Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the first African American archbishop of Washington, criticized the visit to the shrine Tuesday.
“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 wrote. “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.”
However, according to the shrine, Trump’s visit had been planned in advance to precede his signing of an executive order “to advance international religious freedom” Tuesday afternoon.
“This was fitting given St. John Paul II was a tireless advocate of religious liberty throughout his pontificate,” the shrine stated Tuesday. “International religious freedom receives widespread bipartisan support, including unanimous passage of legislation in defense of persecuted Christians and religious minorities around the world.”
They added that “the shrine welcomes all people to come and pray and learn about the legacy of St. John Paul II.”
Protestors lined the president’s route to the shrine Tuesday, which is operated by the Knights of Columbus. Some quietly prayed and others heldpolitical signs. President Trump and the first lady spent some moments outside by the statue of St. John Paul II, on the 41st anniversary of his first papal visit to communist Poland. They also visited the Luminous Mysteries Chapel, John Paul II Blood Relic, and the Madonna Icon.
During a press call afterward, a senior administration official told reporters that the visit “had been specifically previously scheduled for today, June 2nd, to mark the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s first pilgrimage home to his native Poland in 1979.”
For more context on the president’s visit, the official quoted a portion of Trump’s July 2017 speech in Warsaw, Poland, in which he said “when the day came on June 2nd 1979 and 1 million Poles gathered around Victory Square for their very first mass with their Polish pope. That day every communist in Warsaw must have known that their oppressive system would soon come crashing down. They must have known it at the exact moment during Pope John Paul II’s sermon when a million Polish men, women, and children suddenly raised their voices in a single prayer. A million Polish people did not ask for wealth. They did not ask for privilege. Instead, one million Poles sang three simple words: ‘We Want God.’”
Biden Meets Black Religious Leaders
Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, also spent some time this week visiting a church. He met with black faith leaders at Bethel AME church in Wilmington, Delaware, on Monday and listened to their concerns and criticism. He promised to “deal with institutional racism” and set up a police oversight body in his first 100 days in office.
"I want to make something clear: I don't expect anything from the black community," Biden said at one point during the meeting. "It has to be earned, earned every single time."
That comment may have been in reference to criticism Biden faced earlier in May after he said during an interview, “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” He later apologized for the remark, claiming it was meant as a joke.