A Jewish and a Christian leader in the United States have issued a joint statement to media and government calling for civility and honesty in public discourse - following what they describe as "recent political attacks using unattributed sources and based on a [presidential] candidate‚Äôs childhood."
The reference is to the treatment of high-profile black Senator Barack Obama from Illinois - an active Christian who has thrown his hat into the ring along with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, and who has been subject to allegations that he is "secretly" a Muslim and was educated at a madrasa in Indonesia.
In a recent interview with a Chicago television station, Mr Obama denounced what he called a "climate of smear", adding: "When I was six, I attended an Indonesian public school where a bunch of the kids were Muslim, because the country is 90 per cent Muslim."
He continued: "The notion that somehow, at the age of six or seven, I was being trained for something other than math, science and reading, is ludicrous."
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the Rev Dr Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the USA, stress that their criticism of Mr Obama's treatment is not a partisan, but relates to the political health of the nation as a whole.
Their statement, released on 25 January 2007, reads as follows:
"We write not to endorse Senator Obama or any other candidate. We greatly respect the candidates in both parties and have worked cooperatively across party lines with them and with their colleagues.
"We write because we are compelled to call on all of them, the nation, and the media, for greater honesty and civility in our nation‚Äôs politics. In that spirit, we express our grave concern regarding the tactics being used in the recent attack on Senatpr Obama‚Äôs religious upbringing. Tactics that attack candidates for their childhood, use unattributed accusations to denigrate the good name of public figures, or manipulate religious fears for political gain represents a politics that divisively erodes the commonweal, corrodes our national discourse, and violates those key values of honesty and civility that should be at the heart of that discourse.
"What any candidate did from 6-10 years of age should not determine his or her qualifications or fitness for office. Senator Obama‚Äôs qualifications for office, like those of every candidate, should be judged on his record of public service, his character, actions and words over his career, not his third grade studies.
"At a time when religious tensions threaten the stability of so much of the world, the last thing America needs is to bring that divisiveness and hatred into our own land. This appeal to the deepest fears and prejudices of Americans ill-serves our nation.
"In this spirit, we call on those perpetuating these attacks to desist immediately and we call on all the candidates and those campaigning for them to act during this 2008 Presidential race in a way that reflects the values of respect and civility we all must cherish if our nation is to remain a beacon of tolerance and light for the nations."
Senator Obama's spokesman said the senator had never been a Muslim and was a church-going Christian. "We won't take allegations that are patently untrue lying down," Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
The public furore over Mr Obama's ethnicity - he is the son of a Kenyan father, whom he describes as a secular Muslim, and a white American mother - erupted as he announced he was running for the White House. The result has been a media war, with the CNN Network attacking Fox for repeating unattributed allegations made in a right-wing online magazine.
Barack Obama has been a favourite subject of rightwing columnists for months, with speculation about his middle name, Hussein, and comments about the similarity of his surname to Osama bin Laden.
"This kind of stuff hardly says a lot about the intellectual and political maturity of the debate in our country right now", a US church commentator told Ekklesia.