Trump questions whether Mitt Romney is Mormon while speaking to supporters during a rally in Salt Lake City, Utah on Mar. 18. (Reuters)

SALT LAKE CITY — Donald Trump made an aggressive overture to the Mormon community here in Utah Friday evening, praising members of the church while also off-handedly mocking the authenticity of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s faith.

“I have many friends that live in Salt Lake. I have a lot of friends, I have a lot of friends. By the way, Mitt Romney is not one of them,” Trump told a crowd of supporters at the Infinity Events Center. “Did he choke? Did this guy choke? He’s a choke artist, I can’t believe. Are you sure he’s a Mormon? Are we sure?”

Romney’s Mormon faith is well-documented and has been the subject of lengthy discussion in the past. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has made a home in Utah and regularly speaks about his religion. The state is known for its outsize proportion of Mormons.

Trump lavished praise on Utah residents throughout his speech, in particular speaking about his ties to people in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons.

“I have a couple of friends, I have actually one who’s Jewish and he loves ... the Mormons, he loves the Mormons,” Trump said. “... And I have so many friends, I’ve had many Mormons work for me and they give to the church and they constantly give. Sometimes I make the payment directly to the church. They say they don't want to be tempted by keeping the money.”

“They’re amazing people and it’s an honor to be with you tonight, those of you that are Mormons,” Trump added later."An honor. I love you."

As Trump spoke, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the venue to protest the real estate mogul’s controversial anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Last week the Trump campaign saw an escalating series of brawls at campaign events around the country, putting a spotlight on the uncomfortable racial tensions that have manifested at his rallies. Liberal protesters have flocked to protest at his events in recent weeks, as he has inched closer to the nomination.

Trump mentioned the protest outside during his speech but minimized its importance.

“By the way, outside looks absolutely fine. They said we have 2,500 of you and they have some of the agitators slash protesters. Some are protesters, about 2 percent. And then some are agitators,” Trump said.

“We’re not causing any problems, and if you look at some of the other places we’ve been it’s been very, very safe and you’ll have a protester or agitator but stand up and start screaming then the crowd screams them down,” he added. And in fact I wouldn’t mind going over that original noise.”