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Story highlights

The Texas senator held a "Rally for Religious Liberty" at Bob Jones University

Cruz courts evangelicals in South Carolina, a key group if he's to win the nomination

(CNN) —  

Ted Cruz used the backdrop of the terror attacks in Paris as the latest evidence that Christians are under siege, making a pitch on Saturday to evangelicals here that tied together his take-no-prisoners foreign policy with his faith-driven domestic agenda.

The Texas Republican, kicking off his most extensive trip yet in South Carolina, had planned for a month a large, highly-produced “Rally for Religious Liberty” that mirrored a similar event this summer in Iowa.

But Friday’s attacks in France recalibrated Cruz’s message and its overall tone: He began the event with a lengthy moment of silence, and Cruz spent nearly as much time discussing the perils of “radical Islamic terrorism” as he did government persecution of Christian merchants and educators.

“Right now as we speak, it is persecuting Christians. It is persecuting Jews. It’s even persecuting fellow Muslims,” Cruz said of Islamic extremists, as part of a prayer at Bob Jones University, a prominent Christian school. “We ask for unity for the people of America, and we ask finally, that you bless this gathering in celebration of the liberty to worship you with all of our hearts, minds and souls.”

RELATED: Santorum: ‘People are dying because this president refuses to face the truth’

Cruz’s path to the nomination depends largely on winning born-again Christians, particularly in states like Iowa and South Carolina. His campaign has worked to win over some of the evangelical movement’s leading lights and to recruit local pastors to endorse him in each county in that pair of early-voting states.

And if he is the nominee, Cruz told voters here that all he needed to win a general election was 10 million more Christians to vote for him than did in 2012 – a number the presidential candidate portrayed as doable.

The campaign said about 2,500 people came to watch the series of videos and on-stage interviews, in which Cruz himself was featured very little. But the event Cruz convened had the feel of a high-tech service at a megachurch, with sharply cut videos between sermons from movement leaders like Tony Perkins and testimonials from ordinary people who said they weren’t allowed to pray or share their beliefs in public.

After chastising the media on Friday for “belittling” these stories of religious persecution and at one point taunting television cameras to air videos critical of Planned Parenthood, Cruz told reporters before the rally on Saturday that his argument didn’t just apply to Christians, though he said they were the ones most ostracized today and that they needed constitutional protections.

“It protects Christians, it protects Jews, it protects Muslims, it protects anyone who is engaged in peaceful exercise of their faith,” Cruz said. “That being said, though, the Obama administration has demonstrated a particular antipathy for Christians.”

RELATED: Trump says Paris attacks ‘much different’ if residents had guns