Barack Obama is stepping up his effort to correct the misconception that he is a Muslim now that the US presidential campaign has hit the Christian Bible Belt in the south of the country.
At a rally to kick off a week-long campaign for the South Carolina primary for Democrats to be held on Saturday, Obama tried to set the record straight from an attack circulating widely on the internet that is designed to play into prejudices against Muslims and fears of terrorism.
“I’ve been to the same church – the same Christian church – for almost 20 years,” Mr Obama said, stressing the word Christian and drawing cheers from the faithful in reply.
“I was sworn in with my hand on the family Bible. Whenever I’m in the United States Senate, I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. So if you get some silly email… send it back to whoever sent it and tell them this is all crazy. Educate.”
Mr Obama is referring to a chain email circulating widely on the internet that suggests he is hiding his Islamic roots and may be a terrorist in disguise.
It says he was sworn into the Senate on the Koran and turns his back on the flag during the pledge.
There are some truths in the email’s details. Mr Obama’s middle name is Hussein and his father and stepfather were Muslim.
He spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, a largely Muslim country, but he attended secular and Catholic schools, not a radical madrassa.
His campaign has been pushing back against the false rumours all year. His aides decried an incorrect news report that Mr Obama was educated in a radical Muslim madrassa and a section of his website is devoted to correct that and other false rumours circulating on the internet.
They are stepping up the effort now that the campaign has hit South Carolina and soon turns to other southern states where religion is so important to voters.
The campaign distributed an open letter from seven Jewish senators this weekend condemning the attacks; aides are planning an event this week to respond directly to the emails; and campaign representatives blanketed South Carolina churches Sunday with literature that touted Obama’s Christian faith.
One piece features photos of Obama praying with the words “COMMITTED CHRISTIAN” in large letters across the middle. It says Obama will be a president “guided by his Christian faith” and includes a quote from him saying: “I believe in the power of prayer.”
Mr Obama says he is going to fight harder against other mischaracterisations about his positions that he says are being perpetrated by rival Hillary Clinton and her husband, the former president.
“When I see Senator Clinton, President Clinton distort my words… that is not a way to move the debate forward, that is not a way to help the American people,” Mr Obama said during his rally at the Columbia Convention Centre.
“I am not running for president just to become president, I’m running to help the American people. I’m not willing to say or do anything just to win an election.”
The Clinton campaign suggested the former president would continue pointing out what it says are inconsistencies in Mr Obama’s record.
“President Clinton is a huge asset to our campaign and will continue talking to the American people to press the case for Senator Clinton,” said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer.
Mr Obama adviser Steve Hildebrand said the campaign has organised “truth squads” made up of South Carolina supporters ready to defend Mr Obama’s record from any attacks made by the Clintons this week.
In an interview to be broadcast today on ABC’s Good Morning America, Obama said the former president “has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling” by making statements that are not supported by the facts.
“This has become a habit, and one of the things that we’re going to have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he’s making statements that are not factually accurate,” Mr Obama said.
The Clinton campaign responded to Mr Obama’s interview with ABC by posting a fact check on a campaign website in an effort to bolster Bill Clinton’s arguments against Obama.
“We understand Senator Obama is frustrated by his loss in Nevada, but facts are facts,” Mr Singer said.