White House hopeful Barack Obama Tuesday stressed his "stalwart support" for Israel after receiving unwelcome backing from the leader of the Nation of Islam, a religious and socio-political organization for African Americans that is not recognized as being part of mainstream Islam.
"This young man is the hope of the entire world that America will change and be made better," Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, 74, said at a convention on Sunday, according to extracts of his speech broadcast on local television.
"We are witnessing the phenomenal rise of a man of color in a country that has persecuted us because of our color," said the long-time leader of the African-American organization, who has been accused of anti-Semitism and homophobia.
Farrakhan rebuilt the Nation of Islam -- which promotes black empowerment and nationalism -- in the late 1970s after W.D. Mohammed, the son of longtime leader Elijah Mohammed, moved his followers toward mainstream Islam.
Farrakhan has drawn attention for calling Judaism a "gutter religion" and suggesting crack cocaine might have been a CIA plot to enslave blacks.
Obama said Farrakhan's repeated anti-Israel and anti-Jewish tirades were "unacceptable and reprehensible."
"I have been very clear in my denunciation of his anti-Semitic comments," Obama said at a presidential debate with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, insisting he had not sought Farrakhan's endorsement in any way.
Asked about his own Chicago pastor's warm words for Farrakhan in the past, Obama insisted "I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community."
"And the reason is because I have been a stalwart friend of Israel's. I think they are one of our most important allies in the region, and I think that their security is sacrosanct," he said.
Clinton suggested that Obama's remarks on Farrakhan had been weak, arguing he should "reject" the Nation of Islam figurehead rather than "denounce" him.
Obama said there was nothing to reject in terms of a formal offer of help from Farrakhan.
"But if the word 'reject' Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point. And I would reject and denounce," he said to laughter.
In recent years, officials with the Nation of Islam have promoted unity and tolerance among religions.
Obama, who is battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, has had to fend off false claims perpetuated by email that he is a secret Muslim.
Obama's Kenyan father was a non-observant Muslim, but the candidate himself was raised as a Christian by his white American mother.