CHAPIN, South Carolina (AP) — Donald Trump responded forcefully Thursday to comments from Pope Francis that anyone who wants to build a border wall isn't a Christian, saying a religious leader questioning a person's faith is "disgraceful."
The Republican front-runner for president, who has promised to build a wall along the Mexican border from Texas to California and expel 11 million people who are in the country illegally, accused the Mexican government of using Francis as a "pawn" and said the leader of the Roman Catholic Church "only heard one side of the story."
The pope made his comments en route home from Mexico, hours after he prayed at the Mexico-U.S. border for migrants who died trying to reach the United States. When asked about Trump's promise to build a wall, Francis said: "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian."
Not having heard Trump's border plans independently, Francis said he'd "give him the benefit of the doubt." But he added: "I'd just say that this man is not Christian if he said it this way."
Trump said the Pope should wish that he is elected to the White House: "If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, 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 went on to say that "No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man's religion or faith."
The back-and-forth came as Republicans face South Carolina's high-stakes primary on Saturday. Polls indicate that Trump has a large lead in South Carolina and other states. The Democratic race remains close, with Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders facing off in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday.
Another win for Trump, or Sanders, after their New Hampshire victories would indicate that they are contenders who can't be dismissed.
Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has secured the coveted endorsement of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as he tries to win over mainstream Republicans.
Addressing the pope's comments, Rubio on Thursday said Vatican City has a right to control its borders and so does the United States. Rubio previously favored a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, but now says border security is the priority.
Rubio, a Catholic, added that he has "tremendous respect and admiration" for the Pope and that "there's no nation on earth that's more compassion on immigration than we are."
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is trying to rally the Republican Party's most conservative wing. More than 300 pastors and other religious leaders in South Carolina on Thursday endorsed him for president. Cruz's win in the Iowa caucuses was fueled by a similar coalition of evangelical support.
Also on Thursday, Cruz told voters that he is the only Republican candidate for president who can be trusted to nominate a proven conservative to replace Supeme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last week. He says if a liberal justice is seated, the court's ideological balance will tilt, putting gun rights, religious liberty and abortion restrictions in jeopardy.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich continue to battle for a spot at the table, while retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson struggles for relevancy.
Among the Democrats, the fight for the support of women and the black and Latino votes continued. Sanders met with civil rights leaders in Washington, vowing to help black Americans escape poverty and protect voting rights. And he noted that years ago he was named an "honorary woman" by renowned feminist Gloria Steinem.
Also on Thursday, Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs distanced the senator from comments by rapper Killer Mike, who told a rally this week that "a uterus doesn't qualify you to be president of the United States," a reference to Clinton.
Briggs said Sanders doesn't "believe that gender should be the reason we vote for or against anyone."
Clinton is still adding to her wide lead in the delegates who will decide the Democratic Party's presidential nominee, according to a survey by The Associated Press of the party's 712 superdelegates, the party insiders who can support the candidate of their choice, regardless of whom the voters back in the primaries.
Clinton has added 87 to her count, while Sanders added just 11. That gives the former secretary of state a total of 481 delegates, while the Vermont senator has 55. It takes 2,382 delegates to win the nomination.