WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama fought back against an allegation that he was educated at a radical Islamic school as a child in Indonesia, determined to avoid being tripped up by unsubstantiated charges like those that undermined John Kerry in 2004.
Interviews by The Associated Press at the elementary school in Jakarta found that it's a public and secular institution that has been open to students of all faiths since before the White House hopeful attended in the late 1960s.
Obama, who was born in Hawaii, moved to Indonesia at age 6 to live with his mother and stepfather, attending schools in the country until age 10, when he returned to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents.
"The allegations are completely baseless," said Akmad Solichin, the vice principal at SDN Menteng 1, who added, "Yes, most of our students are Muslim, but there are Christians as well. Everyone's welcome here ... it's a public school."
A spokesman for Indonesia's Ministry of Religious Affairs said claims that Obama studied at an Islamic school are groundless.
"SDN Menteng 1 is a public primary school that is open to people of all faiths," said the spokesman, Sutopo, who goes by only one name. "Moreover, he studied earlier at Fransiskus Assisi, which is clearly a Catholic school."
'We will not be swift-boated'
surfaced on the Web site of the conservative Insight magazine the day after Obama announced he was jumping into the 2008 presidential race. Conservative Internet blogs and the Fox News Channel picked up the story and spread the charges just as his candidacy was getting off the ground.
Obama on Wednesday called the reports "scurrilous," and his communications director e-mailed reporters a lengthy memo attempting to set the record straight.
"I think they recognize that the notion that me going to school in Indonesia for two years at a public school there at the age of 7 and 8 is probably not going to be endangering in some way the people of America," Obama said on NBC's "Today" show.
The push-back was a signal Obama would fight to protect his reputation in the presidential campaign.
Many Democrats argued that Kerry's failure to challenge aggressively his critics in the 2004 presidential race cost him in his effort to unseat President Bush. A group with conservative ties, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, charged that Kerry did not deserve the medals he won in the Vietnam War - despite his combat record of bravery and valor. Kerry announced Wednesday that he will not run again in 2008.
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"We will not be swift-boated," said Obama communications director Robert Gibbs. "And we won't take allegations that are patently untrue lying down."
Obama's mother, divorced from Obama's father, married a man from Indonesia named Lolo Soetoro, and the family relocated to the country from 1967-71. At first, Obama attended the Catholic school, Fransiskus Assisis, where documents showed he enrolled as a Muslim, the religion of his stepfather.
The document required that each student choose one of five state-sanctioned religions when registering - Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic or Protestant. Gibbs said he wasn't sure why the document had Obama listed as a Muslim.
"Senator Obama has never been a Muslim," Gibbs said. "As a six-year-old in Catholic school, he studied the catechism."
The Illinois senator is a member of the United Church of Christ.
Iis Darmawan, 63, Obama's kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. "He wrote an essay titled, 'I Want To Become President,'" the teacher said.
Obama later transferred to SDN Menteng 1 - the elite, secular elementary school at the center of the controversy. The school is public but is very competitive and has exceptionally high standards. It is located in one of the most affluent parts of Jakarta and attracts mostly middle- to upper-class students, among them several of former dictator Suharto's grandchildren.
Indonesia is home to several of the most radical Islamic schools in Southeast Asia, some with alleged terrorist links. But Solichin, who proudly pointed to a photo of a young Barry Obama, as he was known, said his school is not one of them.
Those tied to the school say they are proud to have had a student like Obama, and hope that, if he is elected president, his ties to Indonesia will broaden his world perspective and his views on religion.
Sri Murtiningsih, who retired from Menteng 1 recently after 39 years of teaching, said she has vivid memories of the left-handed boy who followed a standard curriculum of math, writing, and language, together with twice-weekly religious affairs classes and sports.
Murtiningsih said neighbors ran to her house after seeing a television report about his intention to run for president.
"They were yelling, 'Your old student is going to take Bush's job!'" she said. "Tears filled my eyes."
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