Pope Francis assailed the views of US Republican candidate Donald Trump on immigration, calling them “not Christian” in a sign of growing international concern over the possibility that the billionaire businessman just might win the election, Reuters reports.
Trump struck back, swiftly dismissing the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics as “disgraceful” for questioning his faith.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis told reporters during a free-wheeling conversation on his flight home from a visit to Mexico.
Trump, who has been his party’s frontrunner in national opinion polls, has accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug runners across the United States’ southern border and vowed if elected president to build a wall to keep out immigrants who enter illegally.
It was not the first time US allies have voiced concern over comments by Trump.
More than half a million Britons signed a petition to bar him from entering the country, where he has business interests, in response to his call to ban Muslims from entering the US. British lawmakers decided against a ban as a violation of free speech.
It was not clear what impact the pope’s remarks would have on the Nov. 8 presidential election.
Asked if American Catholics should vote for someone with Trump’s views, Francis said: “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.”
It remained to be seen if the pope’s comments would strengthen Trump, whose swipes at rival candidates and heated exchanges with others have bolstered his standing in nominating contests and opinion polls.
Trump, a real estate developer and former reality TV show host, said, “If and when the Vatican is attacked by [Islamic State], 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 was in South Carolina, which on Saturday will hold a Republican nominating contest.
He said that in Mexico the pope heard one side of the story and did not see what Trump called the crime, drug trafficking and negative economic impact Mexico’s policies had on America.
“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” Trump said, adding that he was a proud Christian.
Thomas Groome, director of the Boston College Center on the Church in the 21st Century, said Francis’ comments were entirely in keeping with his focus on mercy.
“The pope is commissioned to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s his job,” Groome said. “So when he was asked a direct question, he gave Trump the benefit of the doubt, he said we have to be sure he said this, but if he said this, it is not Christian.”
“People often think, ‘You can’t question my faith,’ but of course we can …,” Groome said. “There are rules … we call them commandments and if you deny them or ignore them you can’t just say, ‘I’m a good Christian.’”
The pope was winning the social media battle on Thursday with overall sentiment for Trump negative and for Francis positive, according to social media analytic firm Zoomph.
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