WASHINGTON: American religious leaders on Tuesday (Jun 3) castigated Donald Trump for posing in front of a church holding a Bible after peaceful protesters were violently cleared from the surrounding area.
"It was traumatic and deeply offensive, in the sense that something sacred was being misused for a political gesture," Washington's Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde said on public radio station NPR.
The Republican billionaire, whose supporters include many evangelical Christians, used "the symbolic power of our sacred text, holding it in his hand as if it was a vindication of his positions and his authority", she said.
The historic St John's Episcopal church is across the street from Lafayette Park, which faces the White House and has been the epicenter of the protests in Washington since Friday.
The church was defaced with graffiti and damaged in a fire during a demonstration on Sunday night.
On Monday protesters were demonstrating there peacefully when law enforcement including military police used tear gas to disperse them - clearing a path for the president to walk from the White House to the church for the photographs.
The protest was televised, and the backlash as the images spread was swift and furious.
"The protest at that point was entirely peaceful," Budde said. "There was absolutely no justification for this."
Trump on Monday adopted a martial tone in a nationwide address he delivered just before the church visit, in which he threatened a military crackdown after the biggest civil unrest in decades.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating their anger since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man killed by police in Minneapolis.
The gatherings have been largely peaceful, but some have degenerated into riots.
Other Episcopalian leaders denounced Trump's visit to the church as "disgraceful and morally repugnant".
"Simply by holding aloft an unopened Bible he presumed to claim Christian endorsement and imply that of The Episcopal Church," bishops from New England said in a statement.
On Tuesday the president and his wife followed up with a visit to the St John Paul II National Shrine in the capital's northeast, immediately infuriating the country's Catholic leadership as well.
"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," Washington's Archbishop Wilton Gregory said in a statement.
The pontiff, who died in 2005, "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", he added.