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Israel halts Christian center talks with Robertson

JERUSALEM (BP)–Israel’s tourism minister announced Jan. 11 that discussions with Pat Robertson will cease regarding the establishment of a Christian Heritage Center in Galilee after the televangelist suggested Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke was punishment from God.

The Israeli official’s announcement was made without reference to a letter of apology from Robertson, which his TV ministry said was being hand-delivered to Sharon’s son, Omri, the same day. There was no word whether the tourism minister, Avraham Hirchson, had received a copy of the letter.

“The minister has very strong views on [Robertson’s Jan. 5 comments about Sharon’s stroke] and cannot accept what was said,” Ido Hartuv, a spokesman for the tourism ministry, said, according to The Jerusalem Post. “We reconsidered the deal and realized that we cannot sign with Robertson or anyone else who supports his views.”

The Christian Heritage Center, proposed to be built in the region where Jesus lived and preached, is the leading element in Israel’s recent efforts to attract more Christian visitors. Robertson had been heading up a group of American evangelicals in plans to raise as much as $50 million for the project, which would depend on Israel donating at least 35 acres of land and infrastructure, according to The New York Times Jan. 12.

Hirchson had said the center could draw up to 1 million tourists per year, generate $1.5 billion in spending and create about 40,000 jobs, according to the Associated Press.

But Robertson’s comments, aired on his television show “The 700 Club” the day after Sharon’s stroke, immediately drew the ire of Israelis involved in the tourism proposal.

“God considers this land to be his,” Robertson said of Gaza. “For any prime minister of Israel who decides he will carve it up and give it away, God said, ‘No, this is mine.’”

“I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course,” he added.

Despite the rift with Robertson, Israeli officials insist the plans for the heritage center will not be dropped altogether.

“Many people are enthusiastic about the project,” Uri Dagul, head of the committee overseeing the project, told The Jerusalem Post. “We initiated the project before Robertson was on board, and we will continue without him.”

Dagul said he would consider resuming cooperation with Robertson if the evangelist were to apologize for his comments about Sharon, and Hartuv, the tourism spokesman, said other evangelicals are still welcome to participate.

“We will not do business with him, only with other evangelicals who don’t back these comments,” he said, according to AP. “We will do business with other evangelical leaders, friends of Israel, but not with him.”

Robertson, in his seven-paragraph letter of apology, stated to Sharon’s son, “I ask your forgiveness and the forgiveness of the people of Israel for saying what was clearly insensitive at the time.”

Robertson stated he had “expressed on television my sadness at his condition and my warm regard for him as a person. … Regrettably, few, if any, of these heartfelt sentiments were carried by the news media in America or by the news media in Israel. However, I ask your forgiveness and the forgiveness of the people of Israel for remarks I made at the time concerning the writing of the holy prophet Joel and his view of the inviolate nature of the land of Israel. … My zeal, my love of Israel, and my concern for the future safety of your nation led me to make remarks which I can now view in retrospect an inappropriate and insensitive in light of a national grief experienced because of your father’s illness.”

The proposed site for the Christian Heritage Center is near key Christian landmarks including Capernaum; the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; and Tabgha, the place historians believe Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fish, the AP reported. Reports indicate the center would include a theme park, an auditorium and an outdoor theater.

Dagul expects construction to start on the center in 2007, and it should be completed three to four years later.

“Evangelicals are the best friends of Israel and they are very, very welcome here,” Hartuv said.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, quickly distanced himself from Robertson after the Jan. 5 comments. Robertson’s remarks, Land said, do not represent the opinion of all evangelicals. He said he conducted a small informal poll among students and faculty on the issue at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., while on campus to teach a class. “I did not find one person who agreed with Pat Robertson and who was not both embarrassed and incensed by his comments,” Land said.

After suffering a massive stroke Jan. 4, Sharon remains in “serious but stable” condition in a Jerusalem hospital and is expected to undergo a routine brain scan Thursday night, according to CNN.com. Doctors reported a slight improvement in his condition and said his heart rate has remained regular as they attempt to bring him out of a medically induced coma.

Jose Cohen, one of Sharon’s doctors, said on Israeli television that the prime minister’s recovery would probably take months.

“Do not think of this in terms of days, or in terms of weeks,” he said, according to CNN. “This will take a long time.”

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