A Senate Republican aide came under fire this week for what members of the Muslim community called his bigoted remarks on Islam. But Idaho Sen. Larry E. Craig, the number three ranking Republican in the Senate, rejected calls to fire the aide, citing his right to free speech.

James George Jatras, a foreign policy staff analyst on the Senate Republican Policy Committee, said Islam has a "fraudulent self-depiction as a pacific creed," arises from "the darkness of heathen Araby" and rivals communism as one of the "gigantic Christian-killing machines."

In an apparent reference to historic Islamic descriptions of heaven, Jatras added that "it is beyond me what spiritual values any Christian has in common with someone whose idea of beatific bliss is boinking an endless parade of the well-rounded houris said to inhabit the Muslim paradise."

Jatras made his remarks at a May 1998 conference co-sponsored by the Rockford Institute, a conservative think tank. Those comments were later printed in the Christian Activist, a journal devoted to the heritage of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The excerpts were preceded by a disclaimer saying Jatras's views "do not represent those of any Senate member or office." The magazine described him as a member of St. Katherine's Greek Orthodox Church in Falls Church.

In a letter Tuesday to Craig, who is chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) demanded that Jatras be fired, calling it "disturbing" that someone with his "extremely offensive and inaccurate" remarks is involved in formulating U.S. foreign policy.

"I absolutely condemn any sort of bigotry or intolerance," Craig said in his reply to CAIR a day later. But "the exchange of opinions and ideas . . . that some might find disagreeable is an important part of the workings of free society."

For him to dismiss Jatras, Craig added, "would not constitute the censuring of bigotry, but its practice."

Craig also told CAIR that U.S. foreign policy is not based on religious or cultural considerations, adding, "I trust you do not mean to suggest that my opposition to the Clinton administration's policies in the Balkans, notably in Kosovo . . . is based on any other consideration."

The Idaho senator has been an outspoken critic of U.S. handling of the Kosovo crisis, in which about 800,000 predominantly Muslim refugees were expelled by Serbian forces. Most Serbs belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Jatras did not return two calls to his office seeking comment.

Several experts on Islam criticized Jatras's views. Rather than dismissal, "the more fitting action would be for him to learn something about Islam," said Charles E. Butterworth, an expert on medieval Islamic philosophy at the University of Maryland. "It's pitiful ignorance . . . he wouldn't be in very good shape if he said something like that about Judaism."

There are an estimated 3 million to 5 million Muslims in the United States and Islam is one of the fastest-growing faiths in this country.

Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) said Jatras's views "reflect a total ignorance of Islam as a faith and Muslims as human beings. Such extreme, ill-informed, bigoted views should disqualify anyone from a foreign policy position."

John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University, said Jatras's description of how Muslims imagine paradise is overblown and not reflective of contemporary Muslim thought. "The sexual aspects emphasized in this description are not . . . the most important part of the Muslim vision of paradise."