Conservative Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson suggested that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine punishment for "dividing God's land."
"God considers this land to be his," Robertson said Thursday 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."'
Sharon, who ordered Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last year, suffered a severe stroke on Wednesday.
In Robertson's broadcast from his Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, the evangelist 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.
He also said, however, that in the Bible, the prophet Joel "makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who 'divide my land."'
Sharon "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 (European Union), the United Nations, or the United States of America," Robertson said.
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 Israeli 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 conservative Christian fundamentalists also opposed the Israeli withdrawal from territories that they believe constitute the biblical land of Israel and link to prophecies foretelling the second coming of Jesus Christ.
In discussing what he said was God's insistence that Israel not be divided, Robertson also referred to the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had sought to achieve peace by giving land to the Palestinians. "It was a terrible thing that happened, but nevertheless he was dead," he said.
In an interview with CNN, Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, called Robertson's comments "outrageous," saying they were not something he would expect "from any of our friends." He compared Robertson's remarks to those of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who on Thursday called Sharon a "criminal" and hoped for his death.
Robertson "is a great friend of Israel and a great friend of Prime Minister Sharon himself, so I am very surprised," Ayalon told CNN.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement urging Christian leaders to distance themselves from the remarks. Robertson made similar comments as the Gaza withdrawal occurred, it said.
"It is outrageous and shocking, but not surprising, that Pat Robertson once again has suggested that God will punish Israel's leaders for any decision to give up land to the Palestinians," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the group, which fights anti-Semitism. "His remarks are un-Christian and a perversion of religion. Unlike Robertson, we don't see God as cruel and vengeful."
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.
The Senate's top Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, joined in the criticism, calling Robert's remarks "completely outrageous, insulting and inappropriate."
Robertson spokeswoman Angell Watts said of critics who challenged his remarks, "What they're basically saying is, `How dare Pat Robertson quote the Bible?"'
"This is what the word of God says," Watts said. "This is nothing new to the Christian community."
In August, Robertson suggested on "The 700 Club" that American agents should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has long been an outspoken critic of US foreign policy. Robertson later apologized for his remarks, saying he "spoke in frustration."