When a notorious Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, told reporters in London that the space shuttle disaster was "a punishment from God" because the crew included the "trinity of evil" of an American, a Hindu and an Israeli, he was condemned. On Tuesday, government officialskicked him out of his mosque.

Yet while his comments were unusual in their grotesqueness, they bore one similarity to comments being heard from others: many people believe the tragedy happened for a reason.

The interpretations of "the message" could not vary more widely. Some say God intervened to prevent more loss of life; others that it was a sign that America's posture toward the world is too arrogant, and still others are chilled by what they feel are suggestive coincidences but cannot fathom the meaning.

On internet message boards, in man-on-the-street interviews and among some spiritual teachers, certain facts or assertions are being strung together as evidence that something special happened:

  • At a time when America is preparing to wage war on Iraq, one of the Columbia crew members who died was an Israeli pilot who had bombed an Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981.
  • The first debris spotted by TV cameras had fallen in a town called Palestine, Texas.
  • One of the crew members, Laurel Clark, had a first cousin, Timothy Haviland, who died in the September 11 attacks.
  • Columbia exploded over George Bush's home state.
  • The Columbia took off on 1/16, for 16 days, expected to land at 8:16 a.m.
  • Apollo 1 burned up in 1967 on January 27, the Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986 and the Columbia on February 1.
  • The Israeli astronaut's daughter reportedly said when the Columbia launched, that she had "lost her daddy."
  • Some in the Arab world viewed this as evidence against America. "God wants to show that his might is greater than the Americans. They have encroached on our country. God is avenging us," an Iraqi government employee Abudul Jabbar Quraishi told Reuters news service. Referring to the Israeli astronaut, a Baghdad car mechanic said, "Israel launched an aggression on us when it raided our nuclear reactor without any reason. Now times has come and God has retaliated to their aggression."

    Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, a leader in Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based terrorist group, told attendees at a graduation ceremony, "What happened yesterday is a message to all humanity, and especially Arab, Muslim and Third World people, a message to those who thought in the past few years that America was a god that couldn't be defeated or defied."

    France's "Liberation" newspaper discussed the tragedy in an editorial titled "Humility": "Some think they see a bad omen in this latest drama. The disaster should be a lesson in humility and show the United States that whatever its financial might, its scientific know-how, its technological prowess, its training of men, it cannot control all, dominate all, foresee all, parry all."

    Poignantly, even some in Israel concluded there was a hostile message. A 16-year-old student whose high school had designed an experiment that was aboard the shuttle, told The New York Times, "Maybe someone didn't want us to be happy. No matter what we do, nothing comes up right."

    Arik Bechar, foreign editor of the Israeli newspaper Maariv, mused, "The mystics will nod their heads and the skeptics will have to mobilize all their skepticism to convince people there was no hand of God in the accident; that in life there are cruel coincidences, even if they include Palestine, Texas and the first Israeli astronaut. But how can we explain the curse pursuing us across the length and breadth of the land these past few years, which pursued us to the limits of the atmosphere? Ilan Ramon was a victim of that same curse, which has turned the Israelis into a nation of paranoids. And who can blame them?"

    Of course, many--perhaps the majority--believe that this was simply a horrible tragedy with no larger significance, but in a nation as religious as the United States, there is a substantial group that ascribes supernatural connections. In Beliefnet's highly unscientific poll, roughly a third of those responding believed it wasn't a coincidence.

    Some turned to the Bible for clues.

    Beliefnet member called Oracles wrote, "God does have His purpose and things don't just happen like this. What if someone very powerful were trying to send Mr. Bush a message? Ever hear of the (so called) hidden codes in scripture?"

    Member ears2hear wondered about "encrypted messages from God," perhaps designed to give a president inclined toward war a "renewed sense of what I means to lose people you care about."

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