Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, is accusing the media of unfairly attacking him and taking controversial remarks he made years ago out of context. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, Reverend Wright said public criticism of him is actually an attack on the black church in the United States. VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Efforts by Senator Obama's campaign to shift public attention away from his fiery former pastor to issues such as the economy and the Iraq war have suffered a blow with several recent high-profile appearances by Reverend Wright.

Speaking to a friendly audience of religious leaders at the National Press Club Monday, the retired Chicago pastor said news coverage of him and his sermons reflects a deep misunderstanding of the black church in America, which has been shaped by hundreds of years of slavery and oppression. He accused the media of playing only a few isolated snippets of his sermons over and over again, taken from 30 years of his ministry.

"As I said, this is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright, it has nothing to do with Senator Obama; it is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African American religious tradition," said Reverend Wright.

Video excerpts from Reverend Wright's sermons over the years surfaced in March. Wright asserted that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks may have been in retaliation for U.S. foreign policy. In one of his sermons he said God should "damn" America for its treatment of African Americans. Wright also suggested the U.S. government created the HIV/AIDS virus to kill black people.

Senator Obama has repeatedly condemned the comments, and called his pastor's view of the United States "profoundly distorted." But Obama said he could not disown the man who has been his pastor for 20 years, officiated his marriage ceremony and baptized his two young daughters.

Asked Monday about Obama's distancing himself from his remarks, Wright said Obama is a politician, and that he had to do that to win the election.

Reverend Wright also strongly rejected assertions that he is unpatriotic and hates America. He pointed out that he served his country as a U.S. Marine, and lashed out at Vice President Dick Cheney, who received student deferments to keep him out of the military during the Vietnam War.

"I served six years in the military, does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve," he asked.

A handful of protesters gathered in the rain outside the press club to show their disapproval of Reverend Wright's message, including Coby Dillard.

"He's casting America in a light where it is blacks on one side, whites on one side, and as a black man, I feel that is wrong," said Dillard. "And also, if you saw my sign, it says 'The United States is not the enemy.' As a veteran myself, and with Reverend Wright being a former Marine, he should understand that everything that our country has done to liberate other countries and even to better our situation here at home."

A recent Newsweek poll indicates that more than 40 percent of Americans say Reverend Wright has hurt their opinion of Senator Obama. Senator Obama has a lead in pledged delegates in the long race for the Democratic nomination with Senator Hillary Clinton. The next primary contests are on May 6 in North Carolina and Indiana.