Donald Trump has called Pope Francis “disgraceful” over the pontiff’s suggestion the Republican presidential frontrunner was “not a Christian” for his plan to build a wall at the Mexican border.Flying back to Rome from a trip to Mexico, the pope said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
Trump responded swiftly at a campaign event in South Carolina, saying: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.”
“No leader, especially a religious leader, has the right to question another man’s religion or faith,” he told a packed room at a golf course resort. Trump then accused the Mexican government of “using the pope as a pawn”.
“They should be ashamed of themselves, especially when so many lives are involved and illegal immigration is rampant and bad for the United States.”
During his in-flight press conference, the pope insisted he did not mean to sway any Americans with his comments. “As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that,” he said.
“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.”
In a press release timed to coincide with his rally, Trump suggested that the leader of the Catholic church would regret not supporting his candidacy. “If and when the Vatican is attacked by Isis, which as everyone knows is Isis’s ultimate trophy,” Trump said, “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.”
But the billionaire said he did not take the pope’s remarks personally. “The pope said negative things about me because the Mexican government convinced him Trump is not a good guy,” he said.
“The Mexican government has made many disparaging remarks about me to the pope because they want to continuing ripping us off,” he added.
He also dismissed the pope’s remarks in general: “Now it’s probably going to be all over the world. Who the hell cares? OK? I don’t care.”
After the event, attendees approached by the Guardian at the Trump rally 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 actually used the words he was quoted saying. Elizabeth Wallschlager, a Panamanian immigrant 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,” Brisker said.
“I don’t think [Trump] disparaged the Pope,” he added – with a concession that “sometimes maybe Donald could use some better words”.
The real estate tycoon, whose campaign shot to prominence with his focus on illegal immigration and pledge to “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it”, is heavily favoured by polls to win Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina.
His rivals in the primary election warily kept clear of the billionaire’s spat with the pontiff. Florida senator Marco Rubio said he wished to reserve judgment until he read the pope’s full comments, but added the US has “not just a right but an obligation” to enforce its immigration laws.
“We’re a sovereign country, and we have a right to control who comes in, when they come in and how they come in,” Rubio told reporters in Anderson, South Carolina.
“Vatican City controls who comes in, when they come in and how they come in as a city state. And as a result, the United States has a right to do that as well.”
Himself a Catholic, Rubio said Pope Francis is “the head of the church, he’s the successor of Peter, is what I believe, and I have tremendous respect and admiration for him”.
Another opponent and converted Catholic, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, told reporters he would not comment on Trump’s faith. “His Christianity is between him and his creator,” Bush said.
Asked about the pope’s statement about walls, Bush said: “I don’t know what that means. I support walls and fencing where it’s appropriate, for sure … I think it’s okay as a Catholic to get my guidance as a Catholic from the Pope but certainly not economic policy or environmental policy.”
Trump has previously questioned the faith of another adversary, Ted Cruz, saying: “You gotta remember, in all fairness, to the best of my knowledge, not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, OK?”
Cruz’s father is an evangelical pastor who emigrated from Cuba, and the senator has pursued extremely religious voters throughout his campaign.
Trump has long sought to prove his own 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 second.