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Televangelist Robertson Under Fire

Venezuela's vice president accused religious broadcaster Pat Robertson on Tuesday of making "terrorist statements" by suggesting that American agents assassinate President Hugo Chavez.

"We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability," Robertson said Monday on the Christian Broadcast Network's "The 700 Club."

"We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator," he continued. "It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with."

Chavez was winding up a visit to Cuba when he was asked at Havana's airport about a U.S. religious leader having said he should be killed.

"I haven't read anything. We haven't heard anything about him," Chavez said. "I don't even know who that person is."

CBS News Producer Portia Siegelbaum reports that Chavez, when asked about Robertson's call for his assasination, said he'd rather talk about life not death.

Chavez, dressed in his trademark long sleeve red shirt, proceeded to talk about Plan Milagro, a joint Cuban-Venezuelan medical project to return eyesight to tens of thousands of Latin America's poor by performing eye operations free of charge, Siegelbaum reports.

Televangelist Pat Robertson suggests the U.S. assassinate the leftist Venezuelan president.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said Venezuela was studying its legal options, adding that how Washington responds to Robertson's comments would put its anti-terrorism policy to the test.

"The ball is in the U.S. court, after this criminal statement by a citizen of that country," Rangel told reporters. "It's huge hypocrisy to maintain this discourse against terrorism and at the same time, in the heart of that country, there are entirely terrorist statements like those."

CBS News Correspondent Gloria Borger reports that this is not the first time Robertson has made controversial statements. Recently he said on national television that so-called activist judges were worse than the 9/11 terrorists.

Relations between the Chavez government and the Bush administration have been strained for some time, reports CBS News State Department Reporter Charles Wolfson, but Robertson's call for assassination was something the State Department wanted no part of.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called Robertson's remarks "inappropriate."

"This is not the policy of the United States government. We do not share his views," McCormack said.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, appearing at a Pentagon news conference, said when asked: "Our department doesn't do that kind of thing. It's against the law. He's a private citizen. Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time."

There was no immediate comment from Chavez, who was winding up an official visit to Cuba on Tuesday. Scores of journalists awaited Chavez at the airport, where he was to board a plane for a trip to Jamaica to discuss a Venezuela initiative to supply petroleum to Caribbean countries under favorable financial terms.

Chavez has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of President Bush, accusing the United States of conspiring to topple his government and possibly backing plots to assassinate him. U.S. officials have called the accusations ridiculous.

"You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it," Robertson said. "It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war ... and I don't think any oil shipments will stop."

Rangel called Robertson "a man who seems to have quite a bit of influence in that country," adding sarcastically that his words were "very Christian."

The comments "reveal that religious fundamentalism is one of the great problems facing humanity in these times," Rangel said.

Robertson's remarks appear likely to further stoke tensions between Washington and Caracas. Chavez has repeatedly claimed that American officials are plotting to oust or kill him — charges U.S. officials have denied.

The United States is the top buyer of Venezuelan crude, but Chavez has made it clear he wants to decrease the country's dependence on the U.S. market by finding other buyers.

Dr. Bill Leonard of Wake Forest University School of Divinity talks to CBS Radio News about Pat Robertson's call for the assassination of Venezuela's president.

"A part of the danger of this is that people will take him at his word and believe that he actually speaks with some kind of divine mandate," Dr. Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University's School of Divinity, told CBS Radio News.

"It also feeds the idea that America ... has a particular kind of Christianity that is destructive and promotes war and assassination."

Chavez has survived a brief 2002 coup, a devastating two-month strike that ended in early 2003 and recall referendum in 2004. The former army paratroop commander, a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is up for re-election next year, and polls suggest he is the favorite.

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