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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former chief rabbi and the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas movement, said on Wednesday that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for U.S. President George W. Bush's support for Israel's Gaza pullout.

"It was God's retribution. God does not shortchange anyone," Yosef said during his weekly sermon on Tuesday. His comments were broadcast on Channel 10 TV on Wednesday.

Yosef also said recent natural disasters were the result of a lack of Torah study and that Katrina's victims suffered "because they have no God," singling out black people.

"He (Bush) perpetrated the expulsion (of Jews from Gaza). Now everyone is mad at him. This is his punishment for what he did to Gush Katif, and everyone else who did as he told them, their time will come, too," Yosef said.

A Shas official, Tzvika Yaacobson, did not deny Yosef made the comments but said they were taken out of context and that people were misinterpreting the rabbi.

"He has a special style he uses when he speaks to the people," said Yaacobson. "He tells jokes that you may like, and may not like. When you just tell the joke, you are ignoring the connotation."

Yosef singled out black victims, saying "they don't study Torah." He used the word "Kushim," which in the Bible refers to an ancient African people but in vernacular Hebrew is considered derogatory.

Yosef, 85, is no stranger to controversy. Last March he declared that God will strike dead "the evil one" who evacuates Israelis from the Gaza Strip, referring to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

He has called on the Israel Defense FOrces to "joyfully" annihilate Arabs with rockets, and he caused a huge uproar when he stated that the six million Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust died because they were reincarnations of sinners in previous generations.