Deborah Charles

Deborah Charles

ABERDEEN, South Dakota - Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama said on Saturday he quit his Chicago church in the aftermath of inflammatory sermons that could become a lightning rod in the November election.

Obama's resignation from Trinity United Church of Christ, which he has attended for 16 years, was an attempt to put the nagging issue behind him as he closes in on the Democratic nomination to run against Republican John McCain for the White House.

"This is not a decision I come to lightly and frankly it's one I make with some sadness," Obama told reporters during a stop in South Dakota.

"Trinity was where I found Jesus Christ, where we were married, where our children were baptised."

The Illinois senator, who would be the first black US president, cut ties last month with Trinity's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who angered many with anti-American and racially charged sermons.

Just as controversy over Wright had died down, a Roman Catholic priest mocked Obama's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, during a guest appearance at Trinity United.

In his sermon the priest, Michael Pfleger, screamed and imitated Clinton and accused her of espousing "white entitlement".

Pfleger later apologised for his comments and was subsequently condemned by Obama and the archbishop of Chicago.

"It's clear that now that I'm a candidate for president, every time something is said in the church by anyone associated with Trinity, including guest pastors, the remarks will be imputed to me even if they totally conflict with my long-held views, statements and principles," Obama said.

His campaign released a copy of a letter Obama and his wife Michelle had sent to the church announcing their decision.

"Our relations with Trinity have been strained by the divisive statements of Reverend Wright, which sharply conflict with our own views," the letter said.

The decision to quit the church appeared to be a sign that Obama wants to put the issue behind him before the general election.

Obama said he and his family would find another church, although he said they would not likely settle on one until early next year. - Reuters