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McCain Rejects Pastor's Backing Over Remarks

Juliet Eilperin and Kimberly Kindy - Washington Post Staff Writers

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STOCKTON, Calif., May 22 -- Sen. John McCain on Thursday repudiated the presidential endorsement of the Rev. John Hagee after learning about a sermon in which the megachurch pastor from San Antonio declared that God allowed the rise of Adolf Hitler because it resulted in returning Israel to the Jewish people.

The Arizona Republican's decision to distance himself from Hagee came after months of mounting criticism, particularly from Roman Catholics, over his acceptance of Hagee's endorsement in late February. Hagee has called the Catholic Church a "false religious system" and a "false cult system" and has suggested that the church played a role in the Holocaust.

Hagee, 68, is one of the country's best-known Christian television evangelists and is known for his fervent support of Israel. But he has a conflicted relationship with Jewish organizations. He spearheaded a group called Christians United for Israel, but not all Jewish groups embrace him, because he does not support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are also leery of his support because he has suggested that their "rebellion" against "Jehovah" has caused much of their suffering, including the Holocaust.

This week, a new controversy over his preaching began when a video started circulating of a sermon, delivered in the late 1990s, in which Hagee calls Hitler a "hunter," a reference to the Book of Jeremiah, which quotes God saying he "will restore" the Jews "to the land I gave to their forefathers."

"Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter," Hagee says in the sermon. "And the Bible says -- Jeremiah writing -- 'They shall hunt them from every mountain and from every hill out of the holes of the rocks,' meaning there's no place to hide. And that will be offensive to some people but don't let your heart be offended. I didn't write it, Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth and it is the truth. How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel."

When asked what McCain thought of the remarks, spokesman Tucker Bounds responded with an e-mail from the candidate denouncing Hagee. "Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them," McCain said. "I did not know of them before Reverend Hagee's endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well."

Speaking to reporters later, McCain said: "I just think that the statement is crazy and unacceptable," adding that while "Pastor Hagee is entitled to his views," he does not want to be affiliated with them.

Mindful of the controversy that ensnarled Sen. Barack Obama, his possible opponent in the November election, McCain tried to draw a distinction between his link to Hagee and Obama's ties to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who was the pastor for many years of the church Obama attends in Chicago. Wright's incendiary remarks about the U.S. government have dogged the Democratic front-runner for months.

"I have said I do not believe Senator Obama shares Reverend Wright's extreme views," McCain said in the statement. "But let me also be clear, Reverend Hagee was not and is not my pastor or spiritual advisor, and I did not attend his church for twenty years." He added: "I have denounced statements he made immediately upon learning of them, as I do again today."

At a campaign rally in February, McCain said he was "pleased to have the endorsement" of Hagee. The next day, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights publicly chastised the candidate and demanded that he reject the endorsement. But McCain refused, despite comments Hagee has made about Catholicism, and his implication that Hurricane Katrina represented divine retribution because a gay pride parade had been planned in New Orleans for that week.

Initially, after learning about Hagee's comments, McCain said that just because he accepts -- or seeks -- someone's endorsement does not mean he endorses that person's views. McCain later said that he repudiated Hagee's views, but continued to say that he accepted and was proud of the endorsement.

Hagee issued his own statement Thursday, saying that he was withdrawing his endorsement to prevent any further damage to the presumptive GOP nominee's candidacy.

"I am tired of these baseless attacks and fear that they have become a distraction in what should be a national debate about important issues," he said in a statement.

McCain also received the endorsement of another controversial television evangelist in late February, the Rev. Rod Parsley of Ohio, whose sermons have been called anti-Muslim. In one sermon, posted on YouTube, Parsley described what he said is "our historical conflict with Islam," adding that "America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed."

Asked about the two preachers Thursday, he said: "I've never been to Pastor Hagee's church or Pastor Parsley's church," adding: "I received their endorsement, which doesn't mean I endorse their views."

Kindy reported from Washington.