A Justice Department official has clarified the opinion of Attorney General John Ashcroft after Arab groups criticized widely-circulated remarks about Islam attributed to Ashcroft.

The New York Daily News reported this weekend that the Arab American Institute called for an apology or resignation from Ashcroft for comments printed on columnist Cal Thomas' Web site from an interview he conducted with Ashcroft on Nov. 9 of last year.

The comment, reported by Thomas, read: "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends His son to die for you."

On Monday, the Council on American Islamic Relations weighed in, saying Ashcroft should explain himself.

"If true, these remarks are inaccurate, offensive and are unbecoming of a law enforcement official who is currently initiating and administering policies that have a disproportionate impact on Muslims. His remarks are also in direct contradiction to President Bush's repeated statements of respect for Islam," CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a statement.

Awad called on the president and other public officials to distance themselves from Ashcroft's remarks.

The Daily News story indicates that the Arab American Institute sought clarification but received no word from Ashcroft's office. However, it said a White House spokeswoman said Ashcroft was misquoted.

On Monday, a Justice Department official told Fox News that the attorney general's comments were taken out of context.

"The attorney general made a reference to extremist suicide terrorists who have hijacked their religion," a Justice Department official said Monday. "The statement does not accurately reflect the attorney general's position."

The official said Ashcroft's views were clearly expressed during a Sept. 28, 2001, news conference in which Ashcroft revealed the contents of a four-page, hand-written letter found in the suitcase of Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 11.

"Let me make clear that while this letter contains a number of religious references, I do not believe it to be representative of Muslims or the Islamic faith," Ashcroft said at the time. "The letter is a stark reminder of how these hijackers grossly perverted the Islamic faith to justify their terrorist acts.

"I want to express my appreciation for the efforts of American Muslim leaders to educate the public about their faith, and to stress that the Muslim faith is peaceful and in no way condones these acts of violence. Muslim Americans are patriotic citizens who deserve dignity and respect," he said.