Donald Trump has hit back at Pope Francis after the pontiff suggested the Republican presidential frontrunner was “not a Christian”.
At a press conference during a trip to Mexico, the pope said of Trump: “A person who thinks only about building walls … and not of building bridges, is not Christian.”
Trump responded swiftly at a campaign event in South Carolina, telling a packed room at a golf course resort: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.”
The Republican frontrunner continued: “No leader, especially a religious leader, has the right to question another man’s religion or faith.
“[The Mexican government is] using the pope as pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves especially when so many lives are involved and illegal immigration is rampant and bad for the United States.”
Earlier, Trump had said: “If and when the Vatican is attacked by Isis, which as everyone knows is Isis’s ultimate trophy, the pope can have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened. Isis would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians.”
Trump said he did not take the pope’s remarks personally, however. “The pope said negative things about me because the Mexican government convinced him Trump is not a good guy,” he said.
He added: “The Mexican government has made many disparaging to me about the pope because they want to continuing ripping us off.”
He also dismissed any potential backlash from his remarks, saying: “Now it’s probably going to be all over the world. Who the hell cares? I don’t care.”
After the event, attendees approached by the Guardian at the Trump rally all took the side of the Republican frontrunner. “I thought the pope was a better person than that,” said Deborah Schwartz, a self described “Trump groupie” from Round O, South Carolina.
Others simply doubted the pontiff would have insulted Trump. Elizabeth Wallschlager, a Panamanian immigration and a Catholic, said: “I don’t think the pope said that.”
An ardent Trump supporter from Kiawah Island, she added: “I think that it’s a misunderstanding. The pope would never say that he doesn’t like anybody. The pope likes everybody.”
Even undecided Republicans such as Dan Brisker of Seabrook Island had concerns about the pope’s statement. “I think the pope needs to get out of the political arena and stick to the religious,” he said, adding: “I don’t think [Trump] disparaged the Pope”. But he allowed that “sometimes maybe Donald could use some better words”.
The Republican frontrunner, whose campaign shot to prominence with his focus on illegal immigration and pledge to “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it” is currently heavily favored in Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina.
Trump has long sought to prove his religious bona fides to social conservative voters. The Republican frontrunner has often stated on the stump that the bible is his favorite book, with his own bestseller The Art of the Deal coming second.
“As much as I love The Art of the Deal, it’s not even close. We take the bible all the way,” Trump said in August.
The real estate mogul, who has repeatedly pledged, if elected, that “we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas again”, has had experienced a number of awkward moments as he has tried to demonstrate his religious faith. In a speech at Liberty University in January, Trump’s attempt at a biblical reference fell flat when he introduced a passage from 2 Corinthians as “Two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians”. Further, the real estate mogul tried to put money on a communion plate while attending church in Iowa in January.
In 2013, soon after Pope Francis I was first elected to the Papacy, Trump praised the pontiff, tweeting: “The new Pope is a humble man, very much like me, which probably explains why I like him so much!”
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