Image: Hagee and McCain
Gerald Herbert  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this Feb. 27, 2008 file photo, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks at a press conference with Rev. John Hagee.
updated 5/22/2008 6:16:40 PM ET 2008-05-22T22:16:40

Republican presidential candidate John McCain rejected the months-old endorsement of an influential Texas televangelist after an audio recording surfaced in which the preacher said God sent Adolf Hitler to help Jews reach the promised land.

"Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them. I did not know of them before Reverend Hagee's endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well," the presidential candidate said in a statement issued Thursday.

Hagee quickly responded that he was withdrawing the endorsement.

McCain actively courted Hagee, who leads a megachurch with a congregation in the tens of thousands and has an even wider television audience. Former Republican presidential rivals also sought Hagee's backing.

The preacher has controversial views that were well-known before McCain accepted his endorsement at a news conference Feb. 27 in San Antonio shortly before the Texas presidential primary.

Hagee has referred to the Roman Catholic Church as "the great whore" and called it a "false cult system." He also has linked Hitler to the Catholic church, suggesting it helped shape his anti-Semitism. And Hagee said Hurricane Katrina was God's retribution for homosexual sin.

Video: McCain rejects Hagee McCain has faced a barrage of criticism, with some comparing the situation to the controversy faced by Democrat Barack Obama over the views of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

McCain has tried to distance himself from Hagee's views, saying he strongly condemned anti-Catholic rhetoric. Yet he never rejected the endorsement.

"I'm glad to have his endorsement," he said on ABC's "This Week" in April. "I condemn remarks that are, in any way, viewed as anti-anything."

The Arizona senator has said he sought Hagee's support because the pastor, like himself, is a strong supporter of Israel.

The formation of Israel was at the heart of the remarks that prompted McCain to reject Hagee's support. The comments came in a sermon Hagee gave in the late 1990s, an audio recording of which was posted last week on the liberal blog "Talk to Action."

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In his sermon, Hagee said, "Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun, and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter. ... How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said, 'My top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.'"

Hagee tried to repair the damage by apologizing to Catholics in a letter released just last week. Saying he had emphasized the darkest chapters in the history of Catholic and Protestant relationships with Jews, Hagee wrote, "I want to express my deep regret for any comments that Catholics have found hurtful."

On Thursday, Hagee issued a new statement saying he was weary of the controversy and was withdrawing his endorsement.

Hagee said critics are "grossly misrepresenting my position on issues most near and dear to my heart."

"I am tired of these baseless attacks and fear that they have become a distraction in what should be a national debate about important issues," Hagee said. "I have therefore decided to withdraw my endorsement of Senator McCain for President effective today, and to remove myself from any active role in the 2008 campaign."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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