Pope Francis inserted himself into the Republican presidential race Wednesday when he suggested that billionaire Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump "is not Christian."
"A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," Francis said when a reporter asked him about Trump on the papal airliner as he returned to Rome after his six-day visit to Mexico according to the New York Times.
Francis' remarks on Trump came shortly after he ended his Mexico trip by presiding over a huge Mass in the border city of Ciudad Juárez. He lay flowers first at a new memorial at the edge of the Rio Grande commemorating those who have died trying to cross the border then called for compassion for immigrants fleeing chaos, poverty and war.
Asked whether he would try to influence Catholics in how they vote in the presidential election, Francis said he "was not going to get involved in that" but repeated his criticism of Mr. Trump, with a caveat.
"I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that," Francis said. "We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt."
Trump responded immediately at a campaign rally in Kiawah Island, South Carolina where he defended his Christian bona fides and called the pope's comments "disgraceful." He also suggested Pope Francis may have been influenced by the Mexican government.
"The pope is being told that 'Donald Trump is not a nice person.' Donald Trump is a very nice person. I am a very nice person," Trump said to applause in a video recording of his reaction.
"And I'm a very good Christian because the pope said something to the effect that maybe Donald Trump isn't Christian and he's questioning my faith. I was surprised to see it but I am a Christian and proud of it," Trump continued.
"For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful. I'm 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," he added to applause.
"No leader, especially a religious leader should have the right to question another man's religion or faith, especially when they feed all sorts of false information into it," Trump continued.
"They are using the pope as a pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves, that's the Mexican government. They should be ashamed of themselves for doing so especially when so many lives are involved. And when illegal immigration is so rampant, and so dangerous and so bad for the United States, Ok? Period. That's it," he said.
In the days before the pope arrived at the border, Trump criticized the visit, calling the pope a political person and accused him of acting at the behest of the Mexican government.
"I think that the pope is a very political person," he said.
In an interview with Fox Business Network, Trump said: "I don't think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico. I think Mexico got him to do it because they want to keep the border just the way it is. They're making a fortune, and we're losing."
Trump who says he is a Presbyterian, has been courting evangelical voters as he seeks to win the coming set of Southern primaries.
Responding to Trump's comments about him, Francis said: "Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.'"
He added: "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."