A delegation of 10 U.S. religious leaders left here to help Salvadoran refugees reclaim their homes and villages in a venture that refugees are likening to the biblical exodus of Jews from Egypt.

Thousands of Salvadorans who have lived in Honduran refugee camps for up to eight years are expected to cross the border soon and make their way by foot and truck to the communities they once fled because of civil war. The presence of the U.S. religious leaders is intended to lower the potential for assaults from the Salvadoran military, which fears the repopulation effort could play into rebel hands.

"We see this as the beginning of what we've been looking forward to for a long time -- the people being able to go home, plant their crops, build their schools," Lutheran Bishop Gustav H. Schultz, leader of the delegation, said in an interview Monday as he and nine other North Americans left Washington National Airport for the repatriation.

About 4,500 refugees from Mesa Grande have notified the United Nations' refugee commission of their intention to join in the repopulation effort. International relief agencies say that at least 17,500 additional uprooted Salvadorans, mostly women, children and old men, are concentrated in four camps.

Many of the refugees are survivors of Salvadoran bombing raids in the early 1980s that chased them into Honduras.

Salvadoran authorities fear the returning refugees will be used by the Marxist-led rebels to strengthen their efforts against the government. The government is particularly upset by the prespect of North American escorts.

"This is an action against the law of the country,"said President Jose Napoleon Duarte. "We do not permit any foreigner to get involved in national problems."