DONALD Trump has called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.
The comments mark a dramatic escalation of his rhetoric on Islam and were widely condemned by his rival Republican presidential candidates and others in the party.
The Republican frontrunner’s proposed ban would apply to immigrants and visitors alike, a sweeping prohibition affecting all adherents of a religion practised by more than a billion people worldwide.
He said in a statement such a ban should stand “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”.
Mr Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has been marked by a pattern of inflammatory statements and he kicked off his campaign with a speech in which he said some Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals.
He recently drew criticism for retweeting an image of inaccurate statistics that vastly overrepresented the number of whites killed by blacks.
But so far those and other errors of fact have not diminished his popularity among many Republican voters.
At an evening rally in South Carolina, Mr Trump supporters cheered and shouted in support as he read his statement and warned that without drastic action, “it’s going to get worse and worse, you’re going to have more World Trade Centers”.
Rod Weader, a 68-year-old real estate agent from North Charleston who attended the rally and said he agreed with Mr Trump’s plan “150 per cent”.
“As he says, we have to find out who they are and why they are here,” he said.
Since the November 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more, a number of Republican presidential contenders have proposed restrictions on Syrian refugees - with several suggesting preference for Christians seeking asylum - and tighter surveillance in the US.
But Mr Trump’s proposed ban goes much further, and his Republican rivals were quick to reject the latest provocation from a candidate who has delivered no shortage of them. “Donald Trump is unhinged,” former Florida governor Jeb Bush said via Twitter. “His ‘policy’ proposals are not serious.”
John Kasich slammed Mr Trump’s “outrageous divisiveness”, while a more measured Ted Cruz, who has always been cautious about upsetting the tycoon’s supporters, said: “Well, that is not my policy.”
Mr Trump’s plan also drew criticism from the heads of the Republican Party in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first three states to vote in next year’s presidential primaries.
“It is un-Republican. It is unconstitutional. And it is un-American,” said Jennifer Horn, chairwoman of the Republican Party of New Hampshire.
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said Mr Trump’s proposed ban would apply to “everybody”, including Muslims seeking immigration visas as well as tourists seeking to enter the country.
In an interview on Fox News, Mr Trump said Muslim members of the US armed forces would “come home” and that his plan would “not apply to people living in the country”.
Mr Trump’s proposal comes a day after Barack Obama spoke to the nation from the Oval Office about the shootings in San Bernardino, California, which the president described as “an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people”.
The FBI said on Monday the Muslim couple who carried out the massacre had been radicalised and had taken target practice at area gun ranges, in one case within days of the attack last week that killed 14 people.
“Donald Trump sounds more like a leader of a lynch mob than a great nation like ours,” said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“He and others are playing into the hands of Isis (Islamic State). This is exactly what Isis wants from Americans: to turn against each other.”