KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Hours after praying for Mexican migrants who died trying to reach the United States, Pope Francis singled out Donald Trump, telling reporters aboard the papal plane that anybody who wants to build border walls “is not Christian.”
“A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said Thursday, according to a translation from the Associated Press. “This is not in the Gospel.”
He added: “I’d just say that this man is not Christian if he said it this way.”
Trump, a Presbyterian, strongly rebuked the pope’s comments.
“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” the Republican presidential front-runner said in South Carolina, where he is campaigning. “I’m proud to be a Christian, and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now with our current president.”
On his trip home from Mexico, Francis said that he does not believe Trump’s promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border reflects Christian values.
Those positions have been at the core of the real estate mogul’s pitch to voters, who believe political leaders have not done enough to protect American interests at home and abroad.
Trump’s critics have accused him of racism and disregarding the destitute economic conditions that many undocumented immigrants have fled.
Trump said Thursday that he was surprised to hear the pope’s comments and said he believes political leaders in Mexico negatively influenced the Holy See. Mexican officials, he added, are “using the pope as a pawn.”
“The pope only heard one side of the story,” Trump said.
The billionaire also indicated that the pope would change his mind if the Vatican were attacked by Islamic State terrorists.
“If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president,” Trump said, reading from a statement. “ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians.”
A senior Trump adviser took to Twitter on Thursday to note that a wall already exists around Vatican City: “Amazing comments from the Pope — considering Vatican City is 100% surrounded by massive walls.”
Three years ago, on that same social media platform, Trump spoke favorably of Francis: “The new Pope is a humble man, very much like me, which probably explains why I like him so much!”
Trump’s response to the pope came three days after he criticized rival Ted Cruz for how the senator from Texas invoked his Christian faith during the campaign. During an appearance before activists in South Carolina on Monday, Trump argued that he would be the better guardian of Christian values, before saying: “Christianity is being chopped away at. Chop, chop, chop.”
Cruz has also supported building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying in December: “We will build a wall that works, and I’ll get Donald Trump to pay for it.”
Following Trump’s rally here Thursday, one 65-year-old Catholic said the pope was “becoming too political.”
“I’m against what he’s doing,” said Kathy Hogan, a retired economics teacher who lives in Kiawah Island. “I understand he’s a very holy man, but I think he needs to stay out of politics.”
DelReal reported from Columbia, S.C. du Lac is in Washington. Mark Berman and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this story.