Where was God when a tsunami swept away perhaps 150,000 souls in South Asia and beyond? Did God cause the tragedy to happen? Let it happen? Or was God not a factor at all?
The tsunami killed Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, people of almost every faith. We asked religious leaders, and one nonbeliever, to explain how they account for God's presence _ or absence _ in human calamities.
"Helpless in the hands of God'
Rao Davuluri, manager of Hindu Temple of Florida, Carrollwood
Sometimes man is helpless in the lap of nature. Man is a helpless being in the hands of God.
What can we do? You help people in whatever humble way you can. It is the same as an accident on the road. You help if you can, but it is not in your hands. Hinduism believes it is predestined. God sometimes destroys. Hinduism believes life goes on.
"This is not a punishment'
The Rev. Robert Schneider, pastor of Espiritu Santo Catholic Church, Safety Harbor
This is not a punishment from God, this is a natural disaster. Our world is imperfect. Our Christian response is to aid and care for those people who've been affected.
Our faith would teach us to be there for people who suffer, those who are left behind. How we are going to be called home, we don't know. The ultimate goal is to be with God in eternity.
"He has power over all things'
Eric Yasin, assistant imam of St. Petersburg Islamic Center
As a Muslim, we believe nothing happens without the permission of God. I cannot judge him. Whatever is his will, it will be. We feel in our hearts our deepest mission is to worship God almighty regardless of what happened because when the day is over, no matter the day, we are faced with a certain truth: There is only God, and he has power over all things.
There's no need to fear death or the day of judgment.
We should respond to the charities. Give money. Give blood. It's not a Christian thing, a Jewish thing, a Muslim thing. It's about humanity.
"Many will find God'
The Rev. Frederick Ohsiek, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Citrus County.
There are many things we don't understand, but God is there in the midst of everything and he's relying upon us to be his hands and his feet to minister in time of trouble.
Devastation is not the will of God. We have a caring and loving God. Natural disasters do take place. Many will find God because they are on rock bottom, and they can only look up. Remember these in prayer, and respond with special offerings for relief aid.
"There are no gods'
Ed Golly, chairman of Atheists of Florida, Tampa
This just demonstrates that there really are no gods. It's just an incidence of nature, is all it is. Things like this will always happen.
I heard somebody say the other day that the tsunami caused damage of Biblical proportions. It made me laugh because the Christian God supposedly drowned everybody in the world except one old drunk and eight members of his family. And then we're told that this is a god of love, compassion, peace and forgiveness. The contradiction is too absurd to contemplate.
"This is of the earth'
The Rev. Kokkavita Wipulasara, Florida Buddhist Vihara, Tampa
We cannot imagine this kind of loss. But according to Buddha, this would be not something of our gods, but of the earth. It came from the ocean. An earthquake. A natural disaster.
It is a fact that we have to face. It does not have any religious way of explaining. We cannot say, "This is Karma," because it came from the ocean. Karma is good following good thoughts or deeds, bad from bad. It does not affect nature.
Nobody can control, no religion can influence this kind of disaster. It is something that happens. In Buddhism, no one asks why it happened. We do not have to waste our time trying to find out why.
We believe in different gods, not a single creator. There is no one god that would control nature. And we know all living beings suffer. This life on earth is impermanent. All living things are going to die.
We do not have to cry. That is nothing. We have to do something good for others. After this life, we do not carry anything with us. The things we give away are what follow us.
"He allowed it to take place'
The Rev. Bernard Smith, Greene Chapel AME Church, Largo
When this happened, God was in heaven and Jesus was sitting at his right hand, watching. God did not cause this catastrophe. But he allowed it to take place.
You have to look at where it happened to understand. Most of the people who were killed were nonbelievers. That entire geographic area, in fact. Some would relate the event to ethnic cleansing.
God said people would perish for lack of knowledge. We serve a loving God. But all these people fell into temptation, and fell away from God. Even the movie stars and models who were trapped over there, they were not of God. So they were not spared.
In my mind, it was already predicted. In Revelations, Chapters 6 and 7, the Bible warns of the four winds that will attack from four corners, hurting the earth and the sea. This is an example of God unleashing those winds.
The safest way to look at this is to say, "God is being glorified from this disaster." We come to God during our worst crises, when we have nowhere else to turn. So this is a way to choose. We've got to choose to come to God.
"There are lessons from all of this'
The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater
I am too insignificant a human being to speculate on what God was thinking. (But) I do not see this as an act of God, in the sense that God was doing this to punish us for something.
Of course, there are lessons from all of this. I am thinking of what we do to our planet. If the mangroves had still been standing along those coasts, and had not been stripped for development, they would have been there to shelter the shore; if the coast had not been so crowded with buildings and people, such numbers would not have been lost; if the houses had been of better condition, they could have been, perhaps, able to better withstand waves of such force. Those are all lessons, things to ponder.
Could God have caused this? My simple answer is no. I don't believe in such a God, in that type of God.
The way the world is responding to this tragedy, with shock and sadness and concern, to me that is a wonderful reminder of how we are all connected as human beings. It is a reminder of our own fraility. And that can lead us to find more humanity within ourselves.
It didn't matter if you were Muslim or Hindu or Christian _ to the waters, it was all the same. No one is sending money to help only the Buddhists or just the Catholics. The relief is for everyone.
"Beyond human comprehension'
Dr. Mohan Singh, high priest, Sikh Gurdwara, Thonotosassa
The Sikh religion strongly believes that humans cannot comment on the doings of the Almighty. He is the creator of the entire universe. We are supposed to bow before his will. His actions are beyond human comprehension. Our scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib exhorts us to surrender before the will of God.
Death, life and birth have very different meanings in the Sikh religion. We believe every event in the universe is preordained. The prayer before the Satguru (the true Guru) can make the event which our minds perceive as bad perhaps not come.
While thousands of people were drowning, God was nowhere _ but amongst them. Human minds cannot comprehend the works and deeds of God.
We can, and we should, pray for the lost people. We cannot blame God. And we should not use this event to deny our spirituality. We should pray for the well-being of everyone.
Times staff writer Mike Wilson contributed to this report.