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Middle East offensive: TV preacher Pat Robertson draws worldwide scorn for comments on ailing Israeli Prime Minister.

Pat Robertson has done it again. Despite gaffe after gaffe that have yanked the TV preacher into religious and political controversy, Robertson keeps venturing into rhetorical excess.

His latest excursion drew national and international howls of indignation.

A day after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke, Robertson said on his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) that an angry God likely had something to do with the leader's dire health situation. Robertson specified Sharon's decision to remove some settlements and withdraw troops from Israeli-held territory in Gaza.

"Sharon was personally a very likable person," Robertson said on his Jan. 5 "700 Club" broadcast. "I am sad to see him in this condition. But I think we need to look at the Bible and the Book of Joel. The prophet Joel makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who, 'divide my land.' God considers this land to be his. You read the Bible, he says, 'This is my land.' And for any prime minister of Israel who decides he's going to carve it up and give it away, God says, 'No. This is mine.'"

Robertson's CBN claims nearly a million viewers daily. He is also president of Regent University and continues to be actively involved with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which he founded. His ability to reach and influence people survives, though that ability looks increasingly hobbled by his excesses.

Indeed, his supporters and fans are finding it harder with each passing year to defend him against some of his critics' charges that he has become too off-the-wall to be much of an influence among Christian evangelicals or socially conservative politicians.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which listens daily to Robertson's broadcast and has alerted reporters to many of the TV preacher's more outlandish statements, quickly deplored his commentary on Sharon. (AU staffers sent a transcript of Robertson's remarks about Sharon to the Associated Press, The New York Times and other media outlets.)

"Pat Robertson has a political agenda for the entire world," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "and he seems to think God is ready to take out any world leader who stands in the way of that agenda. I'm appalled. The last thing the world needs at this difficult moment is someone like Robertson offering these kinds of incendiary comments."

Robertson's comments on Sharon, who at the time had been placed into a coma by his physicians so they could perform operations to staunch bleeding in his brain, did more than rile his longtime critics. Some of his Religious Right cohorts were also offended and were compelled to comment.

"I'm appalled that Pat Robertson would make such statements," Richard Land, chief lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, told the Los Angeles Times. "He ought to know better. The arrogance of the statement shocks me almost as much as the insensitivity of it."

Land added that he believed Robertson's influence among evangelicals is weakened and "with each episode like this the rate of diminishment accelerates."

The Bush administration, which has courted Robertson and his supporters, also moved to distance itself from the televangelist. During his first term, President George W. Bush issued through his "faith-based" initiative a $1.5-million grant to Robertson's "Operation Blessing" charity. Robertson also was a strong supporter of Bush's re-election; indeed, he told his "700 Club" viewers that Bush could do no wrong because he was a man of the Lord and that Bush would easily win re-election.

The White House, however, was quick to condemn Robertson's comments regarding the Israeli prime minister.

Presidential spokesman Trent Duffy said Robertson's comments were "wholly inappropriate and offensive and really don't have a place in this or any other debate."

It wasn't, however, the first time the Bush administration has found itself in the position of criticizing a friend and longtime supporter. The administration also criticized Robertson for saying shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 that "God Almighty is lifting his protection from us" because of court rulings upholding the separation of church and state.

At least one Fox News Channel pundit attempted to defend Robertson.

Guest-hosting the network's "O'Reilly Factor," former congressman John Kasich asked his guests whether the situation was "much ado about nothing." Kasich mused that Robertson was not a "mean guy" and was simply quoting scripture.

Paul Levinson, of Fordham University's media studies department, couldn't bring himself to let Robertson off so easily.

"Well, I have an enormous amount of respect for the scripture," Levinson said. "But frequently when people in our modern age try to apply it literally in a fanatical way, it leads to graceless, absurd statements such as Pat Robertson made.

"If you think about the fact," continued Levinson, "the only other public figure who's commented about Sharon's dying being appropriate in any way is the president of Iran, who's a fundamentalist nut case."

Agence France-Presse reported Jan. 5 that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that he hoped Sharon was dead and that other Israeli leaders would soon perish.

"God willing, the others will join him soon," Ahmadinejad said.

With Robertson's latest venture into bombast, he seems to be on a roll.

In November of last year, Robertson warned residents of Dover, Pa., that their decision to vote out pro-creationism school board members would likely anger God. On his "700 Club" broadcast, Robertson proclaimed that Dover voters had turned their back on God and therefore shouldn't be surprised if their city were suddenly struck with a disaster.

"You rejected him from your city," Robertson said.

And those comments, which also drew worldwide attention, followed his statements in August calling for the murder of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Robertson's controversial comments have not only affected his influence among the Religious Right, but they've marred some of his business dealings.

The ABC Family Channel, which broadcasts Robertson's "700 Club," now runs a disclaimer before the program distancing the company from any comments that may come from the televangelist. ABC, which is owned by Disney, announced its decision following the Chavez commentary.

Not long after his comments on Sharon, Israeli Tourism Minister Avi Hartuv said it would no longer do business with Robertson.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Hartuv was referring to the government's work with Robertson and other evangelicals to build the Christian Heritage Center in the northern Galilee region, which according to scripture is where Jesus lived. The New York Times reported Jan. 12 that the Heritage Center was intended to include a theme park, auditorium and outdoor theater. The newspaper noted that Israel had planned to offer 35 acres for the project and Robertson and the other evangelicals would raise the money for its construction.

But the center, or at least Robertson's involvement in its creation, now looks to be in jeopardy.

"We will not do business with him," Hartuv said, "only with other evangelicals who don't back these comments. We will do business with other evangelical leaders, friends of Israel, but not with him."

On his Jan. 10 broadcast, Robertson told his "700 Club" audience that newspapers he called liberal, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, had unfairly attacked him and he denied saying Sharon's stroke was produced by a God unhappy with the prime minister's policy on Gaza.

"I have been pilloried in the liberal press all across the nation," Robertson claimed. "It isn't fair, but ladies and gentlemen, that's the way the game is played. We're big boys and if we're in the Super Bowl, I can take a few hits."

Numerous networks, such as CNN and ABC World News Tonight, aired Robertson's Jan. 5 comments on Sharon, and the transcript from the show was widely available on Web sites.

Something got to Robertson, however. Only days after striking a defiant tone, he took to the air to read a letter of apology he said he sent to Sharon's son, Omri.

Only days before his Sharon commentary, Robertson opened the New Year with his typical predictions for the year provided to him personally from God. On the Jan. 3 "700 Club" broadcast, Robertson said God told him President Bush would get stronger in the new year and his nominee to the U.S. Supreme court, Samuel A. Alito Jr. would be confirmed by the Senate, Republicans would retain control of Congress and that there would be another vacancy on the high court.

Robertson maintained that God told him that his TV ministry and his school, Regent University, would prosper. But other humans would suffer this year.

Robertson quoted God as saying, "It is nay plan that a shaking will begin. Much more disasters will befall the Earth than have happened heretofore. There will be panic and terror."

Robertson ended the segment by wishing viewers a Happy New Year, telling them they should "look forward to some unusual things happening."

The year, however, started with Robertson sparking controversy over outrageous commentary, something that is hardly unusual.
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Title Annotation:Ariel Sharon
Author:Leaming, Jeremy
Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
Words:1496
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