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'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,'' Trump said.

In recent weeks Trump has stressed his own faith as he steps up efforts to reach out to this critical Republican voter group.

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