Washington: Taking a calculated political risk, Donald Trump took on the Pope for suggesting that he "is not Christian" over his pledge to build a wall between the US and Mexico and deport illegal immigrants.
Coming back hard on Pope Francis for thrusting himself into the US presidential race, the Republican frontrunner told a rally Thursday ahead of South Carolina's crucial primary on Saturday: "For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful."
The Pope is Mexico's "pawn," he asserted, adding that if the Vatican were attacked by the Islamic State, "the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened".
Trump's comments came hours after Francis said on the plane taking him back to Italy after a six-day visit to Mexico: "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian."
The Trump campaign immediately fired back, saying: "No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man's religion or faith."
"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."
Later, at a Town Hall with CNN, Trump called Pope Francis a "wonderful guy" and said he would meet with him "anytime he wants".
"I don't think this is a fight," Trump said. "I think he said something much softer than was originally reported by the media."
Analysts were generally inclined to suggest that this probably won't hurt 'Teflon' Trump, who has time and again emerged unscathed after making similar politically incorrect comments.
In fact, CNN suggested that it would benefit Trump as it would knock South Carolina's Indian-American governor Nikki Haley's endorsement of Florida senator Marco Rubio off the front pages in the final hours before South Carolina votes.
Rubio, who is Catholic, also sided with Trump in an interview with CNN. "As far as building walls on the border, the wall is not just about immigrants," Rubio said.
"It's also about, potentially, terrorists crossing that border, not to mention the drugs that are coming across that border and the human trafficking that's occurring because people know they can get people across the border."
Earlier at the Town Hall, two other Republican rivals former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio governor John Kasich refused to be drawn into the debate between Trump and the Pope.
Kasich simply said he was "pro-Pope." "This man has brought more sense of hope and more about the do's in life than the don'ts," Kasich said, referring to the Pope. "This guy has been so humble."
Bush, who is a devout Catholic, didn't criticise the Pope's comments. But he said he personally wouldn't "question people's Christianity."
"I think that's a relationship they have with their Lord and saviour and themselves. So I just don't think it's appropriate to question Donald Trump's faith," Bush said. "He knows what his faith is."
But for Vice President Joe Biden, the feud was "not a hard call".
"Pope Francis, Donald Trump? That's not a hard call for me, not even close," Biden told MSNBC. "I am not a theologian nor am I priest or a minister, but I think that building walls is fundamentally contrary to what made this country what it is."
(Arun Kumar can be contacted at arun.kumar@ians. (IANS)