Pat Robertson, the television evangelist and Christian Coalition founder, has set off a diplomatic fracas with Venezuela by calling for the assassination of its populist 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 his Christian Broadcasting Network. "We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with."

Venezuelan officials responded yesterday by demanding that the U.S. government condemn Robertson and guarantee Chavez's safety during a scheduled visit to the United Nations next month.

"The ball is in the U.S. court after this criminal statement by a citizen of that country," Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel told reporters, according to the Associated Press. "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."

Robertson's comments came at a time when some members of Congress and Bush administration officials have been trying to ease tensions with Venezuela, which is both an ally of Cuba's Communist government and a major supplier of oil to the United States. Chavez has repeatedly asserted that the United States is plotting to overthrow him, a charge U.S. officials deny.

The State Department, Defense Department and some religious leaders across the theological spectrum quickly distanced themselves from Robertson's remarks.

"This is not the policy of the United States government. We do not share his views," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, calling the evangelist's comments "inappropriate."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference that assassinating foreign leaders is "against the law."

"Our department doesn't do that kind of thing," he said, adding that Robertson is "a private citizen" and that "private citizens say all kinds of things all the time."

The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, said it "defies logic that a clergyman could so casually dismiss thousands of years of Judeo-Christian law, including the commandment that we are not to kill."

The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, a conservative advocacy group in Washington, issued a statement saying that he has always held Robertson in the "highest esteem," but that the evangelist "must immediately apologize, retract his statement and clarify what the Bible and Christianity teaches about the permissibility of taking human life outside of law."

Robertson, 75, made a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Although his influence among evangelical Christians appears to have waned in recent years, he still has a substantial personal following in Virginia Beach, where he founded Regent University in 1978, and on television. He made his remarks on "The 700 Club," a news show that claims to have a million daily viewers.

He has sparked controversy in the past by praying for God to create vacancies on the Supreme Court; calling Muhammad, the Muslim prophet, a "robber and brigand"; defending Liberian warlord Charles Taylor; and agreeing with Jerry Falwell that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were God's punishment for "pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU and the People for the American Way."

Pat Robertson: Operatives should kill Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.