KIAWAH, S.C. — The race for the Republican presidential nomination took an odd turn Wednesday as frontrunner Donald Trump publicly trashed Pope Francis after the pontiff suggested the real estate mogul “is not Christian” because of his pledge to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Pope Francis said when a reporter asked him about Trump on the papal airliner as he returned to Rome after a nearly weeklong visit to Mexico. Francis is the first Latin American pope in Catholic Church history and came to the Vatican from Argentina.
Taking the stage at a rally here, Trump reiterated his Christian faith and called Pope Francis “disgraceful” for questioning it.
“He doesn’t know me,” Trump told a somewhat stunned crowd at a rally here at a golf course in this retirement community about an hour south of Charleston. He suggested Pope Francis’ views had been corrupted by the views of Mexican government officials, who he claimed are determined to make sure he does not win the presidency. Francis, he said, was unfamiliar with the crime and drugs spreading across the U.S. border.
“The pope only heard one side of the story,” Trump said. “He doesn’t understand it.”
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks about Pope Francis at a rally in Kiawah, S.C. (Photo: Randall Hill/Reuters)
As the crowd applauded, Trump doubled down on his pledge to build a wall and curb illegal immigration into the U.S., and he read from a statement suggesting the pope would come to regret his remarks.
“If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’ ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened,” Trump said, reading from the statement. “ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians.”
The highly unusual war of words broke out just two days before South Carolina’s crucial GOP primary. Trump holds a sizable lead over rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio heading into Saturday’s vote, but it was unclear what impact the pontiff’s remarks might have on faith-driven voters here and heading into other pivotal contests on Super Tuesday. Evangelical voters make up a substantial fraction of primary voters in South Carolina, and 75 percent of residents in the state are Protestants.
Trump told the crowd that he learned of Pope Francis’ remarks from his staff as he headed into the event here and was “surprised.”
“I like the pope unless the pope doesn’t like me,” Trump said. “Then I don’t like the pope.”
Pope Francis declined to suggest whether or not American Catholics should vote for Trump.
“I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
The pope did, however, react to past comments in which Trump has called him overly political.
“Thank God he said I was a politician, because Aristotle defined the human person as ‘animal politicus.’ So at least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn — well, maybe, I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people.”