Pope Francis has questioned the faith of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, arguing that anyone who "thinks only about building walls" and not bridges cannot be a Christian.
Throughout his campaign, Trump has promised to deport more immigrants and force Mexico to pay for a wall along the border. He has also made controversial comments accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists and criminals.
When asked about the GOP hopeful and his views by a reporter on Thursday, the pontiff replied, "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian."
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 then echoed his earlier criticism of Trump.
"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."
In turn, Trump released a lengthy press release responding to the pope's criticism: "I like the pope," the GOP hopeful wrote. However, he repeated his earlier claim that the Islamic State's primary goal is to "get to the Vatican."
He added, "If and when the Vatican is attacked, the pope would only wish and have prayed that Donald Trump would have been elected president."
Trump also hit back at the pope's argument that he is not, in fact, a Christian, stating, "For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful. I am 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 reiterated, "No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man's religion or faith. They are using the Pope as a pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing so, especially when so many lives are involved and when illegal immigration is so rampant."
The New York Times notes that Francis made his remarks about Trump just three hours after he had concluded his Mexico trip by presiding over a huge Mass in the border city of Ciudad Juárez.
In the days prior to Francis' visit, Trump accused him of acting at the behest of the Mexican government. "I think that the pope is a very political person," he said.
He later stated in an interview with Fox Business Network, "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."
In turn, Francis reportedly laughed and stated, "Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.'"
"So at least I am a human person," the pope added. "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."
According to a survey conducted in January by the Pew Research Center, just under half (49 percent) of Catholics who are Republicans or lean toward the GOP said that Trump was not very or not at all religious. However, a large number of Catholics are open to seeing Trump in the White House: in Pew's survey, 30 percent of all Catholics who are registered to vote said they felt that Trump would be a good or great president.
BBC notes that two of Mr Trump's Republican rivals, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, both Catholics, said they look to the Pope for spiritual guidance, but not political direction.
While Rubio stated that the United States has a right and an obligation to control its borders, Bush took it a step further, telling reporters he "supports walls where it's appropriate" and that "Christianity is between he and his creator. I don't think we need to discuss that".
Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of the conservative Christian Liberty University and a Trump supporter, also criticized the pope's comments during an interview with CNN: "Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country," he said.