Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a stop at Panora Telecom Solutions, Monday, June 8, 2015, in Panora, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

This story has been updated.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum on Thursday called the tragic church shooting in Charleston, S.C. — which left nine people dead — a “crime of hate” and connected the event to a broader “assault on our religious liberty.”

“You just can’t think that things like this can happen in America. It’s obviously a crime of hate. Again, we don’t know the rationale, but what other rationale could there be? You’re sort of lost that somebody could walk into a Bible study in a church and indiscriminately kill people,” Santorum told radio host Joe Piscopo Thursday on AM 970, a New York radio station. “It’s something that, again, you think we’re beyond that in America and it’s sad to see.”

The former Pennsylvania senator pointed to what he described as anti-religious sentiment.

“All you can do is pray for those and pray for our country,” Santorum said. “This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we — you know, you talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before. It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation.”

A prayer circle formed following a shooting that left 9 dead at an historic African American church in Charleston, S.C. (Robert Costa and Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

Nearly every presidential candidate weighed in Thursday, offering prayers and condolences to Charleston. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), who on Thursday canceled his presidential campaign events for the rest of the week to return to his home state, released a statement saying  “our prayers are with the families of the victims and the people of Charleston. We are all heartbroken by this tragedy."

The Bush campaign announced early Thursday morning that it had canceled a campaign event in Charleston "due to the tragic events unfolding in South Carolina tonight." Businessman Donald Trump, who announced his candidacy Tuesday, also rescheduled an event in the state, saying in a statement that "this is a time for healing, not politics."