KIAWAH ISLAND — Pope Francis injected himself into the final days of the South Carolina Republican primary by suggesting front-runner Donald Trump is “not a Christian” because of his push to build a wall on the Mexican border.
Trump fired back that the spiritual leader for the worlds’ 1.2 billion Roman Catholics was out of line.
“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” Trump told a room full of supporters at Turtle Point Golf Club. “I am 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.”
The pope’s remarks came hours after he concluded a visit to Mexico, where he prayed at the border for people who have died while trying to reach the United States.
Speaking with 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 U.S.-Mexico border and expel millions of immigrants who are 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.”
During his stop on Kiawah Island, Trump accused the Mexican government of “using the pope as a pawn” and called the Vatican the “ultimate trophy” of Islamic State.
“If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS,” Trump said, reading from a prepared statement, “I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.
“The pope only heard one side of the story. He didn’t see the crime, the drug trafficking and the negative economic impact the current policies — I mean, you see what’s going on right? — the current policies have on the United States,” he continued. “The pope is being told Donald Trump is not a nice person. Donald Trump is a very nice person. I am a very nice person, and I’m a very good Christian.”
How much fallout the reported comments from the two might have on Saturday’s turnout is unclear. In South Carolina, roughly 10 percent of the adult population identifies as Catholic, according to Pew Research Center. That translates to about 500,000 people.
During a stop in North Charleston later Thursday afternoon, Trump was asked by the press if he might have softened his message about the pope if he were in a more Catholic-dominated state. Trump said he would not have.
“I have no idea what the percentages are,” Trump said. “I just know that I speak the truth.”
On Kiawah Island, Trump’s supporters were unfazed by his feud with the popular leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, saying they had no plans to change their allegiance.
“It didn’t bother me too much,” Dan Brisker, a retired public school superintendent, said as he left Turtle Point Golf Club with a Trump sticker on his coat and a copy of the newspaper. “Personally, I think the pope needs to stick to religion, not politics.”
Mary Schenck, a self-described prophet, wearing a mink hat and matching mink coat, arrived at the golf club at 7:30 a.m., 31/2 hours before the rally was scheduled to begin, for a front-row glimpse of Trump. She believes “Donald Trump was commissioned by God” to serve as the president.
“That pope’s gotta stand before God, almighty God, the true judge,” she went on. “Donald Trump is good, good, good.”
In addition to the pope, Trump upbraided his usual targets during his 50-minute speech Thursday. He lambasted American air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier for its plans to relocate a factory to Mexico; his opponents for accepting millions in campaign contributions; Germany for “its tremendous crime;” the “corrupt” Veterans Affairs; “incompetent negotiator” Secretary of State John Kerry; and a “phony” NBC News/Wall Street Journal that showed him trailing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz 26 to 28 in the Republican primary race nationally.
Schuyler Kropf and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Deanna Pan at (843) 937-5764.