Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson has sent a letter apologizing for suggesting that Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke was divine punishment for pulling Israel out of the Gaza Strip.
Robertson’s comments drew widespread condemnation from other Christian leaders, President Bush and Israeli officials, who canceled plans to include the American 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 Israeli 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 experienced because of your father’s illness,” the letter said.
“I ask your forgiveness and the forgiveness of the people of Israel,” Robertson wrote.
The 77-year-old prime minister suffered a devastating stroke Jan. 4 and remained hospitalized Thursday in critical but stable condition.
Evangelicals oppose Gaza withdrawal
The day after Sharon’s stroke, Robertson suggested he 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 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 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 is to include studios and satellite links for live broadcasts from the Holy Land.
Rami Levi, director of marketing for Israel’s tourism ministry, told The Associated Press that the government remains “outraged” by Robertson’s remarks.
Israel’s tourism minister, Abraham Hirchson, said Wednesday that Robertson’s help was no longer welcome for the proposed center.
“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, particularly evangelical congregations from the United States, have become an important source of revenue and political influence.
Pilgrimage to Israel
Evangelicals funnel millions of dollars each year to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and provide aid for those evicted from Gaza. They also represent an essential component of the estimated $4 billion in tourist revenue expected this year.
Levi said groundbreaking on the center could come early this year and the first buildings could be finished within two years. The complex will include an amphitheater and broadcast facilities near key Christian sites, including Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and Tabgha on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Christians believe Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fish.
Hirchson had predicted it would draw up to 1 million pilgrims a year, generate $1.5 billion in spending and support about 40,000 jobs. Robertson was leading a group of evangelicals who have pledged to raise the $50 million needed to build the site.
But Levi said there was “more than enough outreach” to other Christian groups to meet the funding.
“The government does not rely on one person in constructing such a site, which is important to the Christians around the world,” said Levi.
Levi suggested that an apology from Robertson would not get him back on the project, but he said that Hirchson did not exclude cooperation with Robertson on other fronts.
“We love to do joint projects with people. But we are also human beings and we have feelings and we think our partners should consider that at times — especially times like this — that statements like this hurt,” said Levi.