President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order “to advance international religious freedom,” after he visited the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C.
The order calls religious freedom “a moral and national security imperative” and declares it “a foreign policy priority of the United States.”
The order calls for “robust” engagement with civic organizations in other countries, and also calls on the Secretary of State, in consultation with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to develop a plan to “prioritize” religious freedom in foreign policy and foreign assistance. International religious freedom is also to be part of U.S. diplomacy.
It also calls for a budget of at least $50 million for programs to help quell religious violence and persecution abroad and to protect religious minorities.
According to a senior administration official, the executive order builds upon Trump’s address to world leaders in September at the UN General Assembly where he called on countries to “end religious persecution.”
“Stop the crimes against people of faith. Release prisoners of conscience. Repeal laws restricting freedom of religion and belief. Protect the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed,” Trump said in September.
Tuesday’s order, the official said, implements that vision of international religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.
Trump signed the order after visiting the John Paul II shrine in northeast Washington, D.C. where he laid a wreath before a statue of Pope St. John Paul II. The wreath-laying commemorated the saint’s 100th birthday, which occurred on May 18, according to the President’s counselor Kellyanne Conway.
The shrine visit came amid widespread national rioting, and conflict over Trump’s response to protests and riots, including a controversial appearance at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday evening. Trump walked to the church, after police cleared a square of protesters and media, allegedly using smoke bombs or tear gas, along with non-lethal projectiles, in what protestors have described as a show of force.
That appearance came immediately after Trump said he would deploy the military to quell riots if he deemed it necessary - an announcement whose legality has since been questioned.
The shrine said Trump’s June 2 visit was planned well in advance of those recent controversies.
A spokesperson for the shrine said that the White House “originally scheduled this [visit] as an event for the president to sign an executive order on international religious freedom.” The president signed the order Tuesday after the visit, rather than at the shrine.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. said on Tuesday morning, just before Trump’s visit to the shrine, that 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, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree.”
Saint Pope John Paul II, Gregory continued, “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.”
Robert Nicholson, is president of the Philos Project, which aims to foster and advocate for religious engagement in the Middle East.
Nicholson told CNA Tuesday that while the timing of the president’s shrine visit was “is ill-timed and unfortunate,” he is nevertheless “grateful that the United States has been leading the campaign for religious freedom around the globe.”
“We need more religion in this world, not less. At a time when chaos reigns and mankind lies entangled in chains of his own making, the need for faith in transcendent truth becomes even clearer. Suppression of religion doesn’t stop the religious impulse. Sill driven to worship, men will make new gods of race and state,” Nicholson added.
“The crisis we are witnessing in America today is ultimately rooted in a loss of shared moral culture, a common vocabulary of truth on which the rest of society is built.”
“International religious freedom is the cause of all causes. It stands for the principle of free thought that God built into the world, a key component of the imago Dei. If there is just one cause we should promote, and promote tirelessly, it is this one,” he said.
During the president’s visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church, Trump held up a Bible in front of cameras in an apparent photo-op. The church had suffered fire damage during protests on Sunday night.
According to the Washington Examiner, police dispersed crowds around the church’s location shortly before Trump visited, allegedly to enforce a 7 p.m. curfew declared by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. The Examiner, however, reported that protests in nearby areas continued well after curfew, and that protesters around the church were reportedly driven away to make room for the President’s visit to St. John’s.
Conway told reporters on Tuesday that she was told “there was a plan to expand the perimeter” of police in the area, and that Trump was not aware “how law enforcement is handling his movements.”
She said on Tuesday that the signing of the religious freedom order, together with the visit to the shrine and recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on reopening houses of worship, is part of “a pretty consistent continuum for this president in standing up for religious rights.”
“I think it’s very unfortunate for people of faith to call into question what is in anyone’s heart, including the President’s, what compels him to go over to St. John’s and hold up his Bible,” Conway said.