Austrian Freedom party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer. Photograph: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

Austrian church officials have criticised the rightwing populist candidate in the country’s upcoming presidential election for using God “for political ends”, after he unveiled a new poster with a religious slogan.

Representatives of Austria’s Protestant church released a statement in which they criticised Norbert Hofer’s posters – featuring the words “so help me God” alongside slogans such as “for Austria with heart and soul” – as “an abuse of his name and religion in general”.

The anti-immigration Freedom party’s general secretary, Herbert Kickl, said the slogan was meant to underline how deeply the party was “anchored in the value system of a western Christian culture”.

But the church statement argued that the god of the Bible was not a “western Christian” deity but a universal god who protected the weak and the poor, “which these days especially includes refugees and foreigners”.

Austria’s Catholic church did not release a statement. In 2006, after Catholic officials advised against voting for the rightwing populists, Hofer switched to the Protestant church, citing a “leftwing Catholic witch-hunt” and misgivings about his former church’s stance on female priests. He said that his wife and children were still Catholics.

Hofer, 45, is hoping to become the EU’s first rightwing populist head of state in the rerun presidential elections on 4 December. The vote falls on the second Sunday of the advent season.

In May, Hofer lost by the tightest of margins to Alexander Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor and former head of the Austrian Green party. However, the result was annulled by the country’s constitutional court two months later after an investigation revealed irregularities in the count of the vote in several constituencies.

Originally scheduled for 2 October, the rerun had to be postponed by two months after the adhesive seals on postal votes were found to have come unstuck.

Van der Bellen presented his own poster campaign last week, showing the 72-year-old in an Alpine setting next to the slogan “serving Austria – and not a party”. Some of Van der Bellen’s posters also contain the slogan: “No to Auxit – stronger together.”

Having previously argued for Austria to have a referendum on EU membership if the bloc took further steps towards integration or allowed Turkey to join, Hofer made a U-turn after Britain’s vote to leave in June, saying it would be “a mistake” for Austria to follow suit.

Latest polls have the two candidates neck and neck on 50% of the vote.