Donald Trump declared himself a defender of besieged Christians in a campaign speech to more than 11,000 people today, as the Republican presidential frontrunner openly courted the support of evangelicals two weeks away from first voting.
News that Trump, known more for womanising, an extravagant lifestyle and bombastic rhetoric than piety, was to speak at the private Liberty University in Virginia had triggered threats of student protests.
But the 69-year-old billionaire and real-estate tycoon found a receptive audience at the university, an evangelical bastion and a rite of passage for conservative presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to Ted Cruz, Trump’s main Republican rival.
Trump, who has courted a string of controversies and urged a ban on Muslims entering the United States, and Cruz are locked in a tight race in Iowa, which on February 1 becomes the first state to vote for party nominees.
“We’ve done great with the evangelicals. The evangelicals have been amazing,” he told the crowd, to cheers, on what was a US holiday commemorating civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
“We’re going to protect Christianity. If you look what’s going on throughout the world — you look at Syria, where if you’re Christian, they’re chopping off heads.
“You look at the different places, and Christianity, it’s under siege.
“I’m a Protestant, I’m very proud of it, Presbyterian to be exact, but I’m proud of it, very, very proud.”
In recent weeks Trump has stressed his own faith as he steps up efforts to reach out to this critical Republican voter group.