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Robertson apologizes for saying stroke was a divine punishment

TEL AVIV -- Pat Robertson, the Christian broadcaster, has sent a letter of apology for suggesting that Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine punishment for pulling Israel out of the Gaza Strip.

Robertson's comments drew condemnation from other Christian leaders, President Bush, and Israeli officials, who canceled plans to include the evangelist in the construction of a Christian tourist center in northern Israel.

In a letter dated Wednesday and marked for hand delivery to Sharon's son Omri, Robertson called the prime minister a ''kind, gracious, and gentle man" who was ''carrying an almost insurmountable burden of making decisions for his nation."

''My concern for the future safety of your nation led me to make remarks which I can now view in retrospect as inappropriate and insensitive in light of a national grief," the letter said.

''I ask your forgiveness and the forgiveness of the people of Israel," Robertson wrote.

The day after Sharon's stroke, Robertson suggested the prime minister was being punished for pulling Israel out of the Gaza Strip last summer. The pullout was seen by many evangelical groups as a retreat from a biblical prophecy of Jewish sovereignty over the area.

''God considers this land to be his," Robertson said on his TV program, ''The 700 Club." ''You read the Bible and he says 'This is my land,' and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, 'No, this is mine.' "

Despite the apology, it was doubtful that Robertson would be brought back into the fold of the proposed Christian Heritage Center in the northern Galilee region, where tradition says Jesus lived and taught.

The exclusion carries a special irony for a preacher who helped define television ministries: The planned complex, if approved, would include studios and satellite links for live broadcasts from the Holy Land.

Rami Levi, director of marketing for Israel's Tourism Ministry, said the government remains ''outraged" by Robertson's remarks.

Israel's tourism minister, Abraham Hirchson, said Wednesday that Robertson's help was no longer welcome.

''But, of course, we continue full engines ahead to construct it because the Christian community around the world -- the evangelical community -- are friends," said Levi, who is responsible for coordinating tourism contacts between Israeli groups and other faiths around the world.

Christian groups have become an important source of revenue.

Evangelicals funnel millions of dollars each year to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and provide aid for those evicted from Gaza.

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