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Rick Perry stands by controversial Turkey claim

SPARTANBURG, SC- JANUARY 8: Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a campaign stop at the Beacon Drive-In January 8, 2012 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. After suffering a fifth place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Gov. Perry has returned to the campaign trail in South Carolina with events for the next several days in hopes of keeping his candidacy alive. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images) Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

FLORENCE, S.C. - Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he stands by his assessment of the leaders of Turkey as "Islamic terrorists," after he was criticized by the country's U.S. ambassador for a "1970s" view of its politics.

"When you see the number of actions against your citizens that we would consider to be terrorist acts, I stand by my statement," Perry told reporters at a press conference today. Perry pointed to the increased rate of attacks on women and concluded, "I respect his sovereign right to say that but I respect my sovereign right to be critical of countries that treat their citizens that way."

During a candidates' debate Monday night, Perry was asked if Turkey should still be in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since an Islamist-oriented party came into power.

Perry responded: "Well, obviously when you have a country that is being ruled by, what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists, when you start seeing that type of activity against their own citizens," then the U.S. should reconsider Turkey's NATO inclusion. He added that he favored zeroing out U.S. aid to Turkey.

In a statement Tuesday, Namik Tan, Turkey's ambassador to the United States, expressed "disappointment" with Perry's remarks.

"Turkey is obviously not the same country that Governor Perry visited in the 1970s," he said. "As an accession country to the European Union and a founding member of the Council of Europe, Turkey has been continuously reviewing and enhancing the rights of all its citizens irrespective of their ethnic or religious background."

"While it was unfortunate, we do hope this episode in last night's debate leads to a better informed foreign policy discussion among the Republican Party candidates, one where long-standing allies are treated with respect not disdain."

Also at the press conference, Perry challenged rival Rick Santorum on his conservative credentials, saying, "Rick Santorum is a good man, he is a good father, he's a good Catholic. But he hasn't always been a good conservative. I make exceptions with his vote for Sonia Sotomayor."

He called the Supreme Court justice a "pro-abortion" and "liberal jurist" and said that Santorum's vote in favor of her appointment to the appellate court helped pave the way for her later rise to the highest court.

Perry's decision to mention specifically that Santorum is a Catholic may be a way of appealing to the state's many evangelical voters. Only 10 percent of South Carolinians are Catholic, according to the Gallup polling firm, while 74 percent the state's residents identify as Protestant or non-Catholic Christian. Perry himself is an evangelical Christian who was raised as a Methodist.

Perry was coy about his political future should he finish at the back of the pack as recent polls predict he might. "I'm pretty focused on South Carolina, so not Disney World," he told a reporter when asked about his next destination. "We're headed to South Carolina, South Carolina, and South Carolina. Then we'll go to Disney World."

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