Homeland security chief: Republicans harming national security by bashing Muslims
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) is greeted on stage by fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz before speaking at a rally against the Iran nuclear deal in Washington, DC on September 9, 2015 (AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm)

Harsh rhetoric about Muslims by Republican candidates in the U.S. presidential election campaign is undermining national security efforts, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Tuesday.

Asked about comments by Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, Johnson told MSNBC in an interview that singling out a specific community hampers government efforts to build the connections that are needed to thwart possible attacks.

"Inflammatory comments about patrolling and securing Muslim neighbors or barring Muslims from entering this country, having an immigration policy based on religion, is counterproductive to our homeland security and national security interests," he said.

Johnson's remarks come in the wake of attacks last week in Belgium claimed by Islamic State militants that have stoked security fears across Europe and the West.

U.S. officials have said there is no immediate known threat to the United States and have vowed to work with European authorities following those attacks, which targeted the airport and a subway station in Brussels.

Heightened concern over security has rippled through the U.S. presidential race, with Cruz calling for police to patrol American Muslim neighborhoods. Trump has continued his call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.

The rhetoric has polarized the U.S. electorate and prompted criticism, particularly from Democrats, including President Barack Obama.

Johnson said officials have worked hard to connect with American Muslim communities to garner their assistance with U.S. national security efforts."In this phase, it is critical that we build bridges to American-Muslim communities, not vilify them, not drive them into the shadows, and encourage them to work with us," he said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum)