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Pence paid an unannounced visit to a church in the Washington suburbs

The pastor said Trump's rhetoric "makes people of color feel dehumanized"

(CNN) —  

The Rev. Maurice Watson says he didn’t care that Vice President Mike Pence was sitting with his congregation; he was going to use his sermon Sunday in the Washington, DC, suburbs to criticize President Donald Trump’s reported use of the phrase “shithole countries” to describe African nations.

Speaking to “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon” on Monday, Watson said he would have delivered the same message to the Metropolitan Baptist Church regardless of whether Pence was in the room.

“I have to speak up for my people, and the vice president just happened to be there,” Watson said, later adding, “When I heard these kinds of visceral adjectives and what have you that were used to describe nations in Africa and other statements about Haiti, I felt that, in good conscience, as a pastor, that I needed to speak up on behalf of the people.”

Pence paid an unannounced visit to the Largo, Maryland, church with second lady Karen Pence on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. During the service, Watson received a standing ovation when he addressed Trump’s comments, according to video of the event provided by the church.

“I stand today as your pastor to vehemently denounce and reject such characterizations of the nation’s (inaudible) and of our brothers and sisters in Haiti and I further say whoever made such a statement and whoever used such a visceral and disrespectful, dehumanizing adjective to characterize the nations of Africa,” Watson said. “Do you hear me, church? Whoever said it is wrong and they ought to be held accountable.”

The tense moment came after reports surfaced Thursday that Trump had asked lawmakers, “Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?” when referring to immigrants from African countries during an Oval Office meeting.

What exactly the President said has been disputed by various participants in the meeting, although there is no disagreement that the president expressed a preference for immigrants from Norway over immigrants from Africa.

In his “CNN Tonight” interview, Watson said Trump’s rhetoric “is tearing this nation apart” and “makes people of color feel dehumanized.”

“It is conspicuously interesting that many of the leadership of the GOP are conspicuously quiet and silent,” he added. “And their silence is complicit. And I think they need to speak up.”

CNN’s Betsy Klein, Elizabeth Landers, Steve Brusk and Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.