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WASHINGTON - The White House sharply criticized Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson on Friday for suggesting that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine punishment for "dividing God's land."

"Those comments are wholly inappropriate and offensive and really don't have a place in this or any other debate," presidential spokesman Trent Duffy said as President George W. Bush traveled to Chicago for a speech.

Robertson made his comments about Israel and Sharon on his TV program, "The 700 Club."

He said, "God considers this land to be his. 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.'"

Sharon is fighting for his life on a respirator after suffering a severe stroke and cerebral hemorrhage.

"He was dividing God's land and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations, or the United States of America," Robertson said. "God says, 'This land belongs to me. You better leave it alone.'"

Last year, Sharon, a longtime hawk and supporter of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, changed tack and withdrew from the Gaza Strip and some settlements in the West Bank, as the best hope for achieving a peace deal with the Palestinians.

The unilateral pullout was supported by the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States. But it was strongly opposed by many members of Sharon's right-wing Likud party, prompting the Israeli leader to quit and form a new centrist party.

Some U.S. evangelical Christians also opposed the Israeli withdrawal from lands that they believe constitute the biblical land of Israel and link to prophecies foretelling the second coming of Christ.

Robertson said he had personally prayed about a year ago with Sharon, whom he called "a very tender-hearted man and a good friend." He said he was sad to see Sharon in this condition.

Robertson also said that in the Bible, the prophet Joel "makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who 'divide my land.'"

"God considers this land to be his," Robertson said. "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.'"

Robertson spokeswoman Angell Watts did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

People For the American Way Foundation, which monitors "The 700 Club," criticized Robertson's remarks, calling them "an implicit reference to recent steps the prime minister has taken to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process."

"Once again, Pat Robertson leaves us speechless with his insensitivity and arrogance," the group's president, Ralph G. Neas, said in a statement.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said a religious leader "should not be making callous political points while a man is struggling for his life."

"Pat Robertson has a political agenda for the entire world, and he seems to think God is ready to take out any world leader who stands in the way of that agenda," Lynn said in a statement.

Ahmadinejad hoping for Sharon's deathIranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying he was hoping for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's death, Reuters reported Thursday.

"Hopefully, the news that the criminal of Sabra and Shatila has joined his ancestors is final," the semi-official news agency ISNA quoted him as telling a group of Shiite clerics in the holy city of Qom.

The United States quickly responded, blasting the comment as "hateful and disgusting."

"This is a man who wraps himself in the cloak of a peaceful religion, Islam, and yet you hear remarks like this coming from him," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

"I can only say that those remarks are hateful and disgusting. And I think that it is, again, a window into the true nature of this particular Iranian Government," McCormack said.

Ahmadinejad has already drawn world condemnation for calling for Israel to be wiped off the map and for branding the Holocaust a myth.

McCormack said the latest comments on Sharon were more of the same.

"I think this is part of a continuing stream of hateful invective that has come from this president."

For additional world reactions to Sharon's illness, click here.