CAIRO -- A spokesman for President Mohamed Morsi said on Wednesday that inflammatory comments that he made about Jews before taking office had been intended as criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians but had been taken out of context. The spokesman said that Mr. Morsi respected all monotheistic religions and religious freedom.
It was Mr. Morsi's first public response to news reports that as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood he had made anti-Semitic statements about Jews and Zionists. A recently resurfaced video of a speech that Mr. Morsi gave at a rally in his hometown in the Nile Delta nearly three years ago shows him urging his listeners "to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews." In another video of a television interview he gave the same year, Mr. Morsi criticized Zionists in recognizably anti-Semitic terms, as "these bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs."
Both sets of comments were reported this week in The New York Times. Representatives of the White House and the State Department condemned them. And on Wednesday Mr. Morsi was confronted about the remarks by a visiting delegation of six American senators led by John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island.
Yasser Ali, the Morsi spokesman, said on Wednesday night at a news conference that Mr. Morsi had told the delegation that the comments were meant as criticism of the "racist" policies of the Israeli government, not as insults to Jews.
"President Morsi assured the delegation that the broadcast comments were taken out of an address against the Israeli aggression against Gaza," Mr. Ali said, according to The Associated Press. The spokesman said Mr. Morsi also assured senators of his respect for monotheistic religions as well as for "freedom of belief and practicing religions," The A.P. said.
At a news conference after the meeting, the senators declined to characterize Mr. Morsi's response. But they appeared to feel he had addressed the issue. The senators emphasized their support for Egypt's transition to democracy. They also said they would press Congress to provide badly needed financial aid and urge American businesses to invest in Egypt, although they also said that Mr. Morsi's inflammatory statements in 2010 made both requests tougher to sell.
"The Egyptian people are going to have to showcase your best behavior," said another senator in the delegation, Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.