London (CNSNews.com) - A controversial British cleric drew criticism from moderate U.K. Muslims on Monday for describing the space shuttle Columbia disaster as a "sign from God" and the astronauts aboard as "criminals."
Abu Hamza al-Masri, a firebrand radical wanted in Yemen on terror charges relating to the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, told reporters that the space shuttle represented "a trinity of evil because it carried Americans, an Israeli and a Hindu."
The cleric was referring specifically to Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, and Indian-born mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, a Hindu.
"The Muslim people see these pilots as criminals. By going into space they would have sharpened the accuracy of their bombs through satellites," al-Masri said.
"These missions would increase the number of satellites for military purposes," he said. "It would increase the slavery of governance of other countries by America. It is a punishment from God."
The cleric mentioned reports that the break-up of the spacecraft began above Palestine, Texas, which he sees as a "sign from God."
But Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the mainstream Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, dismissed al-Masri's comments as "lunacy" and said that British Muslims would be feeling sympathy for the dead astronauts and their families.
"These people went to explore space and to learn more about it -- this is how human knowledge progresses," he told CNSNews.com.
"The people who died in this catastrophic accident will do down as great benefactors of humanity," Siddiqui said. "They were courageous and bold."
Cleric in trouble
The Muslim Parliament and the moderate Muslim Council of Britain have long been critical of al-Masri and his followers.
Anti-terror police raided al-Masri's home base, north London's Finsbury Park mosque, last month in connection with the investigation into the discovery of the poison ricin at an apartment in the British capital.
The U.K. Charity Commission has banned the cleric from preaching at the mosque, and mosque trustees have vowed that he will not be allowed back into the house of worship.
One trustee, Abdul Kadir Burkatulla said last week that the mosque will remain closed for at least three months while it is being cleaned of "physical and spiritual filth."
Al-Masri's British citizenship has also been called into question. According to documents published last week in The Times newspaper, al-Masri obtained the right to stay in the U.K. as a result of his marriage to Englishwoman Valerie Traverso in 1980.
However, records indicate that Traverso didn't divorce her previous husband until more than two years later, making her bigamous marriage to al-Masri void under British law.
See previous story:
Police Raid London Mosque (20 Jan. 2003)
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