Israel Reconsiders Decision to Cut Ties With Pat Robertson

Israel is reconsidering its decision to break off contacts with Pat Robertson over the construction of a Christian heritage park after the U.S. evangelist apologized for saying Ariel Sharon's massive stroke was divine retribution, a spokesman said yesterday.

Israel and Robertson had been close to finalizing a deal to build the multimillion dollar tourist attraction when the broadcaster said last week that Sharon had been punished by God for pulling Israel out of the Gaza Strip. The comments prompted Israel to call off talks with Robertson over the deal.

Robertson issued an apology, which Israel accepted on Friday.

"In light of the apology and his expression of sorrow over Sharon's health, we will reconsider our decision," said Ido Hartuv, a spokesman for Israeli Tourism Minister Abraham Hirchson.

Israel's relations with the evangelical Christian community remain strong, Hartuv said. "We really love them," he said.

Sharon suffered the stroke on January 4, and he remained comatose in "critical but stable" condition yesterday.

The day after the stroke, Robertson suggested Sharon 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 Holy Land.

"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.'"

In a letter of apology sent to Sharon's family, Robertson said his remarks had been "inappropriate and insensitive" and asked for forgiveness.

Israel hopes to attract 1 million pilgrims every year to the park, which will be built near the Sea of Galilee, close to sites where Christians believe Jesus preached and performed miracles.

Under the emerging agreement, Robertson would lead a group of Christians from around the world to build a broadcast center, an open-air chapel and an auditorium for re-enacting Jesus' journeys in the area. The groundbreaking is slated to begin early this year.

Christian pilgrims pray for Sharon

Irit Rosenblum adds: Dozens of Christian pilgrims have come to Israel over the past week to pray for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recovery.

The visit was arranged through one of the major tourism companies in the United States, which sends 25,000 pilgrims to Israel annually.

Owner Jim Ridgeway said the pilgrims decided to come following Sharon's stroke. They want to hold prayer services and visit Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem.