At least 20 priests and lay volunteers from the diocese were at St John’s Lafayette Church throughout the day to support nearby protesters with water, snacks and hand sanitiser.
Reverend Gini Gerbasi, rector of a nearby church in Georgetown, was packing up supplies shortly after 6pm when armed police began expelling demonstrators from Lafayette Park and the church patio, she told Religious News Service.
She said police in riot gear carrying black shields pushed into the patio of the church as people around her began crying in pain, saying they were hit with nonlethal projectiles.
“I was suddenly coughing from the tear gas. We heard those explosions and people would drop to the ground because you weren’t sure what it was,” Ms Gerbasi said.
“They turned holy ground into a battleground.”
They fled the scene, leaving behind medical supplies, and regrouped several blocks away to nearby K Street when she saw on her phone photos of Mr Trump in front of the church holding a bible.
“I am outraged,” the Right Reverand Mariann Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which St John’s Church is a part of, said in a statement.
“The president just used a Bible and one of the churches of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for.
“To do so, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the churchyard.”
St John’s Church, which had been damaged in riots earlier this week, was also unaware of the president’s surprise visit, saying in a statement they were “shocked and appalled” at the violent clearing of Lafayette Square to make the visit possible.
“He used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes,” said Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
“This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us.”
The Independent has asked the White House for comment.