JERUSALEM – Israel will not do business with Pat Robertson after the evangelical leader suggested Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke was divine punishment for the Gaza withdrawal, a tourism official said Wednesday.
Robertson is leading a group of evangelicals who have pledged to raise $50 million to build a large Christian tourism center in Israel's northern Galilee region, where tradition says Jesus lived and taught.
But Avi Hartuv, a spokesman for Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschson, said Israeli officials were furious with Robertson, a Christian broadcaster.
A day after Sharon's Jan. 4 stroke, Robertson said the prime minister was being punished for "dividing God's land," a reference to last summer's pullout from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.
"We can't accept this kind of statement," Hartuv said.
He said the Christian Heritage Center project was now in question, though he left the door open to develop it with others.
"We will not do business with him, only with other evangelicals who don't back these comments," Hartuv said. "We will do business with other evangelical leaders, friends of Israel, but not with him."
"Those that publicly support Ariel Sharon's recovery ... are welcome to do business with us."
Robertson's comments drew condemnation from other Christian leaders and even President Bush.
Under a tentative agreement, Robertson's group was to put up the funding, while Israel would provide land and infrastructure for the center. Israeli officials had hoped the project would generate tens of millions of tourism dollars.
The ministry's decision was first reported on Wednesday's in The Jerusalem Post newspaper.
Robertson's Christian Heritage Center was to be tucked away in 35 acres of rolling Galilee hills, near key Christian sites such as Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes, where tradition says Jesus delivered the Sermon of the Mount, and Tabgha — on the shores of the Sea of Galilee — where Christians believe Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fish.
The project was a sign of strengthened ties in recent years between Israel and evangelical Christian groups that support the Jewish state.
Israel was considering leasing the land to the Christians for free. Hirschson predicted it would draw up to 1 million pilgrims annually who would spend $1.5 billion in Israel and support about 40,000 jobs.
Hirschson, however, is one of Sharon's biggest supporters, and a member of the centrist Kadima party recently founded by the prime minister.