WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As religious and political leaders offered prayers for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, some Christian fundamentalists suggested the storm was the work of an angry God bent on punishing a sinful nation.
In news releases and Internet chat rooms, some fundamentalists said the hurricane was sent to punish New Orleans, a city known for Mardi Gras and other raucous festivals.
Others said the disaster, which may have killed thousands in Louisiana and Mississippi, was revenge for the United States' support of the removal of Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip.
"Whenever this country encourages Israel to give up any part of their rightful God-given land we have suffered the consequences," wrote a discussion-board participant on the Web site of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
A Philadelphia group called Repent America said the hurricane was sent by God to prevent an annual gay-pride festival that was due to take place this weekend. "We must not forget that the citizens of New Orleans tolerated and welcomed the wickedness in their city for so long," said Repent America director Michael Marcavage. "May this act of God cause us all to think about what we tolerate in our city limits."
Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson urged their followers to pray for the victims and contribute to relief efforts, but made no public statements about the reason for the hurricane.
But Franklin Graham, who heads the evangelical charity Samaritan's Purse, said on the Fox News Channel on Thursday night that the mayhem and looting in New Orleans could be traced to a lack of religious instruction.
"This happens in our country when we have taken God out of our schools and God out of our, out of society. We don't have a moral standard," he said.
Political leaders urged prayer as well.
"God is responsible for this and in his own time he will reveal why," said Illinois Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. at a news conference.
American Christians have often seen the hand of God behind natural disasters, religious experts said.
Probably half of the U.S. population believes that a divine power sends judgment through hurricanes, floods and natural disasters, said John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a Washington think tank.
"The basic idea that God is in charge and he expects people to behave and he isn't happy when they don't -- that's a very common idea," Green said.
A small number of Christians believe that the United States needs to support Israel in order to bring about the return of Christ, said William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"Those who hold such a view would tend to see any cataclysmic act as a sign of punishment, but much more responsible theologians would argue that that's far too mechanical a notion of the way God operates," he said.