After days of scorching criticism, Donald Trump defended his decision to let stand a comment disparaging Muslims, and told a conference of conservative Christians Saturday evening that he would fight to protect their right to practice Christianity inside the U.S.
Trump lamented that stores don't use the word "Christmas" in their holiday displays. "You go to a store in New York and they don't use it any more, they don't put it up," Trump said, to loud applause from the crowd attending the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines. "And I want Christmas to be used, I want people to be able to celebrate Christmas," he said.
"Every year it gets worse and worse, before you know it you won't be able to go to church the way they're doing it," he said.
Trump also said, without backing it up, that Syrian Muslims applying for admission to the U.S. have gotten preferential treatment over Syrian Christians in recent years.
"If you're a Muslim you can come in easy, if you're a Christian from Syria, where they cut off your head, where they drown you, where they do things that you are talking about medieval times, you wouldn't believe -- it is almost impossible, in fact it is virtually impossible to come into the United States," Trump said. "That's the way we have our country now. That is what we have been reduced to."
The comments are likely to further inflame critics who chastised Trump for not correcting a man who stood up at a town hall in Rochester, N.H. on Thursday and said Muslims are a "problem" in this country. The man also asked, "When can we get rid of them?" and said that "our current president is one." As the man spoke about Obama, Trump interjected, "Right," and the man went on to add, "You know, he's not even an American."
Trump wrote on his Twitter account Saturday: "Am I morally obligated to defend the president every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him? I don't think so!"
"This is the first time in my life that I have caused controversy by NOT saying something," Trump wrote Saturday.
As a backlash against Trump built steam, the GOP presidential candidate canceled a speech to a major gathering of Republican leaders in South Carolina hours before he was to go onstage Friday night. But he had two appearances in Iowa Saturday evening, including the faith forum and a speech at a local high school homecoming.
Trump is the current front-runner in the Republican primary, leading a large field of candidates. On Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that Trump's divisive tone seems to be striking a chord with Republican voters.
"People who hold these offensive views are part of Mr. Trump's base," Earnest said, adding that Trump is far from the first Republican politician to "countenance these views" in an attempt to win support.
"In fact, that's precisely what every Republican presidential candidate is doing when they decline to denounce Mr. Trump's cynical strategy because they're looking for those same votes," Earnest said.