- Morsy says his "apes and pigs" comment was aimed at Israeli aggressors
- "We had a constructive discussion on this subject," U.S. Sen. McCain says in Cairo
- Morsy told the American delegation he is committed to respecting religions
- The White House and State Department demanded Morsy repudiate the remarks
Egypt's president says comments he made more than two years ago that are being criticized as anti-Semitic were taken out of context, Egypt's official news agency reported Wednesday.
President Mohamed Morsy said the statements, made in 2010, were about Israeli aggression against Palestinians in Gaza, not about the Jewish people, according to a statement published in Egypt News.
U.S. senators visiting Cairo on Wednesday confronted him about the comments, according to one of the senators.
"In our meeting with President Morsy, we voiced our strong disapproval of statements he made a few years ago that have recently surfaced," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said in a written statement. "We had a constructive discussion on this subject. We leave it to the president to make any further comments on this matter that he may wish."
The congressional trip also included Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island; Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York; Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut; and Chris Coons, D-Delaware. The group met with leadership, business and other Egyptian groups.
Morsy told the American delegation he is committed to respecting religions, and to the principle of freedom of belief and religious practice.
"President Morsy also added that it's necessary to separate between Judaism and the Jewish people, and the violent practices against the unarmed Palestinians and the assaults on their lives and properties," according to the Egyptian News report.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration strongly condemned Morsy's recorded comments and called on him to repudiate what he said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the comments "deeply offensive ... language that espouses religious hatred."
In the recording, Morsy says Arabs and Muslims "must cut off all relations with this plundering criminal entity" and "besiege the Zionists," whom he calls "bloodsuckers," "warmongers" and "descendants of apes and pigs."
"We want to see President Morsy make absolutely clear to his own people, to the international community that he respects people of all faiths," Nuland said on Tuesday.
The White House, in a clearly coordinated statement, also condemned Morsy's statements. Spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, "This kind of discourse has been acceptable in the region for far too long and is counter to the goal of peace. President Morsy should make clear that he respects people of all faiths and that this type of rhetoric is not acceptable or productive in a democratic Egypt."
The comments, which Morsy made as a then-leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, immediately raised questions about whether he can be trusted to respect Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Even as she condemned Morsy's remarks, the State Department spokeswoman noted that since he has been president, Morsy "has reaffirmed again, and again" Egypt's commitment to peace with Israel.
"He has been willing to work with us, and with Israel, on shared objectives, including the cease-fire in Gaza," Nuland said. "He's been committed to our bilateral relationship. So ... that is the basis on which we are continuing to work together going forward."
She added, however, "We will judge him by what he does ... but we'll also judge him by ... what he says. And we think that these comments should be repudiated and they should be repudiated firmly."
Asked whether Morsy's comments could damage relations with the United States, Nuland said U.S. officials hope that making the administration's views clear to the Egyptian leader and inducing him to publicly step away from his comments might tamp down what could be an angry reaction from members of Congress.
She told reporters, "We certainly have made the Egyptians aware that we are continuing to seek economic support funds for Egypt on the Hill, and they are very well aware that these kinds of issues are of concern there, too."
Last autumn, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, placed a hold on $450 million in U.S. economic support for Egypt after that nation cracked down on democracy support groups.