WASHINGTON, Jan 29 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump fought back on Sunday amid growing international criticism, outrage from civil rights activists and legal challenges over his abrupt order for a halt on arrivals of refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
In his most sweeping action since taking office on Jan. 20, Trump, a Republican, put a 120-day hold on Friday on allowing refugees into the country, an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria and a 90-day bar on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
"Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world - a horrible mess!" Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday. "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!" added Trump, who has presented the policy as a way to protect Americans from the threat of Islamist militants.
Civil rights and faith groups, activists and Democratic politicians have promised to fight the order, which caused chaos and confusion for affected travelers and sparked protests at several U.S. airports throughout Saturday.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, voiced muted criticism. Speaking on ABC's "This Week" program, he said it was a good idea to tighten the vetting of immigrants, but "it's important to remember that some of our best sources in the war against radical Islamic terrorism, are Muslims, both in this country and overseas ... We need to be careful as we do this."
A Republican colleague in the Senate, John McCain, was more critical, saying the order had been a confused process and could give Islamic State propaganda material.
Condemnation of the order poured in from abroad, including from traditional allies of the United States.
In Germany - which has taken in large numbers of people fleeing the Syrian civil war - Chancellor Angela Merkel said the global fight against terrorism was no excuse for the measures and "does not justify putting people of a specific background or faith under general suspicion", her spokesman said on Sunday.
A federal judge in Brooklyn, New York, granted a temporary reprieve late on Saturday evening. The American Civil Liberties Union, representing two Iraqis caught by the order as they flew into the country, successfully argued for a temporary stay that allowed travelers to remain in the United States.
The court action did not reverse Trump's order, but prevented those denied entry into the country from being deported. Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, predicted in an interview with CNN on Sunday that the case could ultimately land in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Separately, a group of state attorneys general were discussing whether to file their own court challenge against Trump's order, officials in three states told Reuters. Other groups eyed a constitutional challenge claiming religious discrimination.
Trump, a businessman who successfully tapped into American fears about attacks by Islamist militants during his campaign, had promised what he called "extreme vetting" of immigrants and refugees from areas the White House said the U.S. Congress deemed to be high risk.
He told reporters on Saturday that his order was "not a Muslim ban," adding the measures were long overdue and were working out "very nicely."
The Department of Homeland Security said about 375 travelers had been affected by the order, 109 of whom were in transit and were denied entry to the United States. Another 173 were stopped by airlines before boarding.
The order "affects a minor portion of international travelers," the department said in a statement, saying the measures "inconvenienced" less than 1 percent of the daily arrivals of foreigners into U.S. airports.
The DHS, which issued its statement after the Brooklyn federal judge's ruling, said the order would stay in place. "No foreign national in a foreign land, without ties to the United States, has any unfettered right to demand entry into the United States," it said.
The new rules blindsided people in transit and families waiting for them, and caused havoc for businesses with employees holding passports from the targeted nations and colleges with international students.
Mark Krikorian, the director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, called lawsuits challenging the order "last ditch efforts" that would only apply to a few individuals, and he said a broader constitutional argument would be hard to win.
Some leaders from the U.S. technology industry, a major employer of foreign workers, issued warnings to their staff and called the order immoral and un-American.
"This ban will impact many innocent people," said Travis Kalanick, chief executive of Uber Technologies Inc, who said he would raise the issue at a White House meeting on Friday.
The new rules upended plans that had been long in the making for some people, such as Iraqi Fuad Sharef and his family. They waited two years for a visa to settle in the United States, selling their home and quitting jobs and schools in Iraq before setting off on Saturday for a new life they saw as a reward for working with U.S. organizations.
Sharef, his wife and three children were prevented from boarding their connecting flight to New York from Cairo on Saturday, detained overnight at Cairo airport and forced to board a flight back to the northern Iraqi city of Erbil on Sunday morning.
"We were treated like drug dealers, escorted by deportation officers," Sharef told Reuters by telephone from Cairo airport.
Iraq's former ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, said Trump's ban was unfair to a country that itself has been a victim of attacks, and could backfire.
Iran vowed to retaliate. Sudan called the action "very unfortunate" after Washington lifted sanctions on the country just weeks ago for cooperation on combating terrorism. A Yemeni official expressed dismay at the ban.
Britain's most successful track athlete, Olympic champion Mo Farah, slammed the policy in a statement.
"On 1st January this year, Her Majesty the Queen made me a Knight of the Realm. On 27th January, President Donald Trump seems to have made me an alien," said Farah, who was born in Somalia, came to Britain as a child and who currently lives with his wife and children in Oregon.
Confusion abounded at airports on Saturday as immigration and customs officials struggled to interpret the new rules. Some legal residents with green cards, or the right to residency, who were in the air when the order was issued were detained at airports upon arrival.
Airlines were blindsided and some cabin crew were barred from entering the country. Emirates, the world's largest long-haul airline, has had to change flight attendant and pilot rosters on services to the United States because of the ban, an airline spokeswoman said Sunday.
Thousands of refugees seeking entry were thrown into limbo. Melanie Nezer of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society said she knew of roughly 2,000 who were booked to come to the United States next week. (Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Cornwell and Steve Holland in Washington; Mica Rosenberg, Jonathan Allen, Melissa Fares, Daniel Trotta and David Ingram in New York; Andrea Hopkins, Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Andrea Shalal and Andreas Rilke in Berlin, Paul Sandle in London; Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Arwa Gaballa, Eric Knecht in Cairo, and Michael Georgy in Erbil; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Mary Milliken)