Beliefnet
CAIRO, Egypt, March 25--(AP) - A U.S. delegation accused of interfering in Egypt's domestic affairs by focusing on religious freedom here ended its trip with an attempt to calm the controversy, stressing Sunday that its purpose was not to pressure the Egyptian government.

``Under U.S. law the commission advises the president, secretary of state and the U.S. Congress, not the Egyptian or any other foreign government,'' Elliott Abrams, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in a brief statement released Sunday by the U.S. Embassy.

The statement was released a day after the three-person delegation headed by Abrams left Egypt to continue a regional tour that included Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian areas. The delegation had refused to meet with reporters during a five-day stay in Egypt that had drawn fire from across the political spectrum.

``Our job is to think about the effects of U.S. foreign policy on religious freedom in various countries,'' Abrams said in Sunday's statement.

His federal commission was created in 1999 under a U.S. law that also provides for diplomatic and economic sanctions that can be used to punish countries the United States determines persecute their religious minorities or violate religious freedoms.

Egypt's largest Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the commission delegation's visit as an attack on Egyptian sovereignty. Left-leaning human rights groups, saying they did not recognize the United States as an arbiter of religious freedom, refused to meet the delegation.

According to Sunday's statement, Abrams and his colleagues did, though, meet with Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the moderate head of Al-Azhar, one of Islam's oldest and most prominent institutions; and Pope Shenouda III, spiritual leader of Egypt's Coptic minority, the largest Christian community in the Mideast.

Copts make up around 10 percent of the population of 65 million in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. Christians and Muslims generally live together in peace, though Christian-Muslim violence has erupted and Christians occasionally complain of discrimination.

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