ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Thrusting himself into the heated American presidential campaign, Pope Francis declared Thursday that Donald Trump is “not Christian” if he wants to address illegal immigration only by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump fired back ferociously, saying it was “disgraceful” for a religious leader to question a person’s faith.
The rare back-and-forth between pontiff and presidential candidate was the latest astonishing development in an American election already roiled by Trump’s free-wheeling rhetoric and controversial policy proposals, particularly on immigration. It also underscored the popular pope’s willingness to needle U.S. politicians on hot-button issues.
Francis’ comments came hours after he concluded a visit to Mexico, where he prayed at the border for people who died trying to reach the U.S. While speaking to reporters on the papal plane, he was asked what he thought of Trump’s campaign pledge to build a wall along the entire length of the border and expel millions of people in the U.S. illegally.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” he said. While Francis said he would “give the benefit of the doubt” because he had not heard Trump’s border plans independently, he added, “I say only that this man is not a Christian if he has said things like that.”
Trump, a Presbyterian and the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, responded within minutes.
“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” he said at a campaign stop in South Carolina, which holds a key primary on Saturday. “I am proud to be a Christian, and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened.”
Trump also raised the prospect of the Islamic State extremist group attacking the Vatican, saying that if that happened, “the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened.”
The billionaire businessman said later Thursday that he was “totally respectful” of the pope but stood by his initial response.
Francis, the first pope from Latin America, has been a vocal proponent of compassionate immigration policies. In an address to Congress during his visit to Washington last year, he urged lawmakers to respond to immigrants “in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”
He also irked Republicans on the same trip with his forceful call for international action to address climate change. His comments prompted some GOP presidential candidates to suggest the pontiff stay out of politics.
Immigration is among the most contentious issues in American politics. Republicans have moved toward hardline positions that emphasize law enforcement and border security, blocking comprehensive legislation in 2013 that would have included a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally.
Hispanics, an increasingly large voting bloc in U.S. presidential elections, have flocked to Democrats in recent years. President Barack Obama won more than 70 percent in the 2012 election, leading some Republican leaders to conclude that the party could win the White House back only if it increased its appeal to the fast-growing group.
However, the current GOP presidential primary has been dominated by increasingly tough rhetoric on immigration, with Trump at the forefront. He’s insisted that Mexico would pay for his proposed border wall and has said some Mexicans entering the U.S. illegally are murderers and rapists.
While Trump’s rhetoric has been among the most inflammatory, some of his rivals have staked out similar enforcement positions. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson are among those who have explicitly called for construction of a wall.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of the few GOP candidates proposing a path to legal status for people already in the U.S. illegally, said Thursday that he supports “walls and fencing where it’s appropriate.” Bush said that while he gets his guidance “as a Catholic” from the pope, he doesn’t take his cues from Francis on “economic or environmental policy.”
Marco Rubio, another Catholic seeking the GOP nomination, said that Vatican City has a right to control its borders and so does the United States.