PARIS - The U.S. ambassador to Morocco has expressed dismay over the expulsion of Americans accused of trying to convert Moroccans to Christianity in the North African kingdom.

The episode, involving several other foreign nationals, threatened to overshadow U.S. praise yesterday for Morocco's recent steps forward in human rights, women's rights and democracy.

Village of Hope, a charity-run home for orphaned and unwanted children in northern Morocco, said Thursday that 16 of its workers were ordered on Monday to leave the country.

Islam is Morocco's official religion, and Christian evangelism is banned.

U.S. Ambassador Samuel Kaplan, in a message Thursday to Americans registered with the embassy, said the U.S. doesn't take issue with Moroccan law.

Rather, Kaplan expressed "our distress" about the way they were sent away. He said the Moroccan government refused a hearing for those expelled, which "violates fundamental rules of due process."

For leaders of the children's home, the expulsions were a step in the wrong direction.

The group, on its Web site, called the expulsions "part of a nationwide crackdown against Christians living in Morocco" and said the "parents" were given hours to pack up and leave without being shown any evidence.

"The eviction process was the most painful situation imaginable," the statement said.

The group said it "always sought to abide" by the law, and had required volunteers and visitors to sign a declaration promising to abide by the ban.