As the battle for the Republican presidential nomination gets into full swing, the issue of religion has resurfaced, with front-runner Mitt Romney forced to defend his Mormon faith.

While critics have branded Mormonism an anti-Christian cult, those who belong to the church say the possibility of a Mormon winning the White House could help the faithful to make their beliefs better understood.

"We are Christians. Everything is open, any question can be asked," said Seth Lucia, a lawyer and leader of the Mormon community in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia.

Aaron Sherinian, another Washington, DC-area Mormon, agreed, telling AFP: "We are supposed to open our doors, we're supposed to open our hearts and we're supposed to open our mouths about what it means to be a Mormon.

"So if, in this moment, we have the opportunity to do that a little bit more, we say welcome."

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is not the only Mormon seeking to unseat US President Barack Obama in next year's election. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman also practices the faith.

Romney found himself a target this month when Texas pastor Robert Jeffress called Mormonism a cult and said Romney "is not a Christian," while introducing Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Romney rival, at an event in Washington.

Some of the stigma faced by Mormons stems from the faith's seemingly secret traditions -- non-Mormons are barred from entering temples, even for weddings -- but Lucia explained that temples have a "unique status."

"It's a sanctuary," he said of the giant gold-spired Kensington temple north of Washington -- an easily spotted landmark along the capital's beltway.

He said Mormon temples were a "place which is essentially reserved for those who have committed themselves to follow Christ."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is known around the world for its missionaries -- both Huntsman and Romney at one time worked to spread the faith -- as well as its past practice of polygamy and its expertise in genealogy, developed for religious reasons.

There are six million Mormons in the United States, where the faith was founded, and eight million elsewhere around the world.

In 1820, founder Joseph Smith said he had had a vision of God, and that Jesus Christ had given him the task of restoring the church to its origins with the help of the sacred Book of Mormon. He organized the church a decade later.

Persecuted, Mormons sought refuge in the western state of Utah. Today, most US Mormons live in the western part of the country.

The faithful follow strict rules -- no alcohol, tobacco or caffeine -- and tend to uphold conservative values, promoting abstinence before marriage and opposing both abortion and same-sex marriage.

Most Mormons give 10 percent of their income to the church.

Scandals do erupt, notably when members choose to practice polygamy, which was outlawed in 1890, but Sherinian says such people are rogue "dissidents."

So is the church backing one candidate over another? In politics, Lucia says the church "is very explicit in the fact that they take no position."

Retired dental hygienist Jill Casillas, a Mormon, said she would be "very happy to know that the man at the White House is someone who prays, who believes in Jesus Christ and follows Christian principles."

"Romney probably would be a comfort to me, but if I stood up in church and said, 'Romney is the person we are supposed to vote for because he's a Mormon,' I would be asked not to do that," she added.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the first word that comes to mind for 60 percent of respondents when asked about Romney is "Mormon."

But a separate CNN poll said that 80 percent of those intending to vote would not take religion into consideration at the ballot box.

"Mormons are not a problem; Romney is," said one person posting a comment on a CNN blog.

"Americans will vote with their wallets, and the Mormon community will follow the trend," one Mormon, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

"This election is less about religion and more about the economy than the world thinks."