Updated: Nathan Phillips rally protesters attempted to disrupt Mass at DC’s National Shrine

Opening Mass for the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Jan 21 2014 Credit Addie Mena CNA CNA 1 22 16 Mass celebrated inside the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. CNA file photo

While demonstrators chanted and played ceremonial drums, protesters at a rally led by Nathan Phillips attempted Jan. 19 to enter Washington, DC's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a Saturday evening Mass.

The group of demonstrators was stopped by shrine security as it tried to enter the church during a Saturday evening Vigil Mass, according to a shrine security guard on duty during the Mass.

"It was really upsetting," the guard told CNA.

"There were about 20 people trying to get in, we had to lock the doors and everything."

The guard said the incident was a disappointment during a busy and joyful weekend for the shrine.

"We had hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the country come here to celebrate life, to celebrate each other together. That a protest tried to come inside during Mass was really the worst."

The guard told CNA the situation was "tense."

"I'm just really grateful that nothing too bad happened, they were really angry."

A source close to the shrine's leadership corroborated the security guard's account, telling CNA that during the Mass, Phillips and the group tried to enter the church while playing drums and chanting, and were prohibited from entering the building by security personnel, who locked the main basilica doors with the congregation still inside.

The shrine's spokeswoman would not initially confirm or deny that the group attempted to enter the Mass. She told CNA Jan. 22 that "a group did assemble on Saturday evening outside the the shrine" and that they "left without incident."

On Jan. 23, however, the spokeswoman provided to CNA a statement confirming that during a 7:00 p.m. Mass celebrated at the basilica, "a group of approximately 50 individuals attempted to gain entrance to the basilica while chanting and hitting drums."

"In respect and reverence for the Mass, the individuals were not permitted to enter the Basilica due to the disruption it would have caused during the solemn Mass. The individuals were asked to leave the property after it was determined they did not intend to share in the celebration of Mass."

Video footage of the demonstration was posted to Facebook by one rally participant.

The video begins as a group including Phillips prepares to approach the main steps of the basilica. One participant announces that the group will march to the front of the shrine for "a non-violent peaceful action."

Another participant tells the group that if they want to enter the basilica, they can do so if they go "in small groups" to pray.  

"Just say you are going to Mass," a third participant advises, and another demonstrator says the basilica is "a public space."

As the participants begin walking, one demonstrator advises participants: "I'll watch the cops."

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The video next shows the group, led by Phillips, ascending the front staircase of the basilica, chanting and playing drums. A smaller group of protesters appears to attempt entering the basilica, while the larger group, estimated by some reports at about 60 people, continues to ascend the front stairs before stopping at a landing.

The participants who attempted to enter the shrine can eventually be seen returning to the larger group of protesters.

A California seminarian, who was not permitted by seminary officials to be publicly identified, spoke to CNA about his experience of the events.

"I was outside when the protesters were coming up the steps of the basilica. I was curious because of the noise and chanting. At first I didn't take it too seriously, but as they came up the steps we were told to go inside - I was with a group of people from California there for the March for Life. The security people shut the doors and locked them."

"I was inside and the protesters were banging on the doors."

On the basilica steps, Mr. Phillips read a statement which said: "We demand that the students of Covington Catholic High School be reprimanded not just by their school officials but, as seniors, by their upcoming universities."

"We demand that the Catholic Church hold itself responsible for the [indistinct] hundred-plus years of genocide that indigenous peoples have endured and endure persistently by implementing the following: with reparations of land and restorations to the indigenous peoples in the U.S. and across the world."

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"We demand that the Catholic Church revoke the papal bulls related to the doctrine of discovery, which laid the foundation for religious prejudice and the dehumanization of indigenous peoples."

The video shows several shrine security guards standing between the group and the basilica's entrance.

Inside the basilica, the seminarian said that visitors to the shrine and Mass attendees were unable to leave immediately, either through the main doors or the various side exits.

"We couldn't leave from there either [downstairs and side doors]," the seminarian told CNA. "There was more security that told us it was not exactly safe to leave at that point."

The seminarian said his group was not permitted to exit the building for another 20 or 30 minutes.

"It was about 30 minutes before the police were able to contain the situation and disperse the protestors," he told CNA.

A spokesperson for DC Metro Police confirmed to CNA that officers responded to a call at the shrine's address, 400 Michigan Ave NE, at 6:27 pm on Saturday.

After Phillips read his statement, the video shows a participant telling the group that "we need to get off the premises, we have been informed by police that we need to get off our occupied indigenous territory."

"We came here, we sat, we made peaceful ceremony. We showed the Catholic Church how to respect prayer, how to respect ceremony. It's not even their land and we still showed respect."

"Right now we are going to head out with the AIM song to make sure nobody gets arrested or hurt."

CNA contacted the Lakota People's Law Project, whose lead counsel, Chase Iron Eyes, acts as spokesman for the Indigenous Peoples March, to ask if the demonstration was an officially sanctioned or affiliated event. No response has yet been received.

CNA has attempted to contact Phillips and has been unable to reach him.

Philips was the subject of national media attention on Saturday, after video went viral on social media depicting parts of a Jan. 18 incident involving him and several teenagers, some of whom were students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky. The incident has become the subject of intense national debate, and Phillips has been accused by some of instigating an encounter with the students, and subsequently altering his initial account of events. 

Covington Catholic High School was closed Jan. 22, following threats against students and staff in the wake of media coverage of Friday's incident.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that about 60 people gathered outside the shrine in support of Phillips on Saturday night, though it did not mention reports that Phillips and some supporters attempted to disrupt the evening Mass.

Video footage posted by CBC showed one supporter saying that the group had gathered at the shrine to listen to Phillips, and to hold the Catholic Church "accountable" for the alleged actions of the Covington Catholic students and for the "colonial violence that the Catholic Church reproduces every day."

The Facebook video viewed by CNA concluded with the reflections of one protester.

"It's cold, but you know what the cold, the rain, the snow, whatever, it ain't gonna stop us. We're gonna get out here and let our voices be heard. Whether it be at a Catholic Church, it don't matter, Catholic school, whatever."

"We're still gonna come on this property, it's all our ours anyway. We came, said our part. You know, because what them boys did, you know, Trump supporters, and you know, being disrespectful. We didn't bother them. They came over and bothered us, saying stuff, being disrespectful. You know what, we're still here. We'll be back."

The shrine security guard told CNA that for him the incident was especially distressing because Mass was underway.

"It's a house of worship, a place of prayer where people come to celebrate. All this anger is so against what we are all about here."

He told CNA that he'd never witnessed anything like it during his whole time of employment at the basilica.

"I don't know the details of what happened on Friday [after the March for Life], I wish I did. All I know is it's a shame, and it's got nothing to do with why people were here."

"And this all happened on our biggest event of the year. I hope we never see it again."

This story is developing, and was updated Jan. 23 at 11:30 a.m. MT and 4:30 p.m. MT.

CNA initially reported the disruption occurred during a 5:15 pm Mass at the basilica. A shrine spokesperson subsequently clarified that it took place during a 7:00 p.m Mass. The story has been updated.

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