Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO) presidential candidate has been criticised by the country’s Protestant church for using the phrase “so help me God” on his campaign posters. The church also says Norbert Hofer’s anti-immigrant stance runs against Christian principles.

As reported by the Reuters news agency, Hofer hopes to persuade voters to make him the European Union’s first far-right head of state in a run-off election on December 4.

The result of a previous run-off in May, which the 45-year-old eurosceptic narrowly lost to former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, was annulled due to irregularities in counting postal ballots.

Austria is a traditionally Christian country where two-thirds of the 8.7 million population are professed Catholics and about 4% are Protestant.

“God cannot be instrumentalised for one’s own intentions or for political purposes,” the three branches of the Protestant churches in the Alpine republic said in a joint statement.

According to Reuters, a spokesman for the Austrian Bishops’ Conference – the highest body of the Catholic church – said the church would not comment on Hofer’s campaign. The Protestant church, on the other hand, said Hofer had misused Christianity for narrow political ends.

“We do not get involved in party politics, but if Christian principles are violated we have to take a… stand,” said Thomas Hennefeld, superintendent of the Protestant Reformed Church.

“We stand for a Biblical understanding of God, a universal God who is there for the weak, the strangers, the refugees – the opposite of what the FPO stands for.”

In a separate report, the Guardian quoted the FPO’s general secretary, Herbert Kickl, as saying that the controversial slogan was meant to underline how deeply the party was “anchored in the value system of a western Christian culture”.

The latest polls show Hofer and Van der Bellen neck and neck on 50% of the vote.