Priests have claimed they were tear gassed so US President Donald Trump could pose with a Bible outside a Washington DC church.

The rector of St John's Church in Lafayette Square, close to the White House, said she was driven off the property by police to clear the way for a visit by Trump.

Church staff said they had no warning of the visit and were "appalled at the violent clearing" of the area.

St John's is known as "the church of presidents" because every president beginning with James Madison has attended a service there.

Advertisement

The venue was caught in the middle of mass protests at Lafayette Square and was damaged on Sunday night.

On Monday, Trump said he was revolted by the video of George Floyd lying prone with a police officer's knee on his neck and justice would be served.

He told Americans he was "your president of law and order" and an "ally of all peaceful protesters" but would deploy the military if violent protesters were not quelled by state authorities.

READ MORE:
George Floyd death: Donald Trump slammed for posing with bible outside church
Covid-19 coronavirus: Trump deems churches 'essential', calls for them to reopen
George Floyd death: Virginia pulls officers from DC over Trump's photo op
Anderson Cooper's furious Trump takedown: 'Who's the thug here?'

According to some reports, the President was riled by suggestions he had fled to the White House bunker as people protested outside and wanted to be seen on the streets of DC.

However, there are claims peaceful protesters were tear gassed and shot at with rubber bullets before Trump's arrival to clear a path to the church.

Trump loyalist Senator Marco Rubio said the protesters were "professional agitators" who were refusing to disperse to provoke police.

Tear gas floats in the air as a line of police move demonstrators away from St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House. Photo / AP
Tear gas floats in the air as a line of police move demonstrators away from St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House. Photo / AP

But in a Facebook post, Rector Gini Gerbasi, said the church knew nothing of Trump's visit and she was "shaken" by the police actions.

Advertisement

Gerbasi said she had been passing out water and snacks to peaceful protesters on the patio area of the church with fellow clergy when police began clearing people from the park about 6.15pm.

"We were literally DRIVEN OFF of the St. John's, Lafayette Square patio with tear gas and concussion grenades and police in full riot gear," Gerbasi wrote.

She said she couldn't believe it when she found out they had been driven away from the site so that Trump could get a photo.

"PEOPLE WERE HURT SO THAT HE COULD POSE IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH WITH A BIBLE!

"HE WOULD HAVE HAD TO STEP OVER THE MEDICAL SUPPLIES WE LEFT BEHIND BECAUSE WE WERE BEING TEAR GASSED!!!!"

Friends, I am ok, but I am, frankly shaken. I was at St. John's, Lafayette Square most of the afternoon, with fellow...

Posted by Gini Gerbasi on Monday, 1 June 2020

Gerbasi said she was deeply shocked.

Advertisement

"I am shaken, not so much by the taste of tear gas and the bit of a cough I still have, but by the fact that that show of force was for a PHOTO OPPORTUNITY.

"The patio of St John's had been HOLY GROUND today. A place of respite and laughter and water and granola bars and fruit snacks.

"But that man turned it into a BATTLE GROUND first, and a cheap political stunt second.

"I am DEEPLY OFFENDED on behalf of every protester, every Christian, the people of St John's, every decent person there, and the BLM medics who stayed with just a single box of supplies and a backpack, even when I got too scared and had to leave. I am okay.

"But I am now a force to be reckoned with."

President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House. Photo / AP
President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House. Photo / AP

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington also sharply criticised Trump.

Advertisement

The Reverend Mariann Budde, whose diocese St John's belongs to, said she was "outraged" by Trump's visit and noted that he didn't pray while stopping by the church.

"He took the symbols sacred to our tradition and stood in front of a house of prayer in full expectation that would be a celebratory moment," Budde said.

"There was nothing I could do but speak out against that," she added, calling for a focus on "the deeper wounds of the country".

Budde said the church was "completely caught off-guard" by the visit, with "no sense that this was a sacred space to be used for sacred purposes".

We at St. John’s Church were shocked at the surprise visit from the President this evening and even more appalled at the...

Posted by St. John's Church, Lafayette Square on Monday, 1 June 2020

Although the church's basement was damaged by fire she said they could rebuild.

"We can replace the furnishings of a nursery," she said, referring to the damaged area. "We can't bring a man's life back."

Advertisement

In a Facebook post, St John's Church said it was "appalled" at the events.

"We at St John's Church were shocked at the surprise visit from the President this evening and even more appalled at the violent clearing of Lafayette Square to make the visit possible," the post said.

"We stand with those peacefully protesting the tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd, and the far too many who came before him."