Top news of '15: Marriage, terror, pope

Written by Peter Smith on .

Charleston-MartyrsEach year members of the Religion Newswriters Association polls members for what they see as the top 10 biggest religion stories of the year.

Eight of the 10 I voted for were in the same top 10 that the writers voted for over all - but in very different order. As I saw it, this was a very dark, violent year. At least six of my top 10 involved either direct cases of religiously motivated violence or reactions to it. My colleagues saw more of a mix of issues at the top, and their list was even more pope-heavy than mine was. (It's a secret ballot, but I don't mind discussing mine after the fact.)

And in that vein, my colleagues voted Pope Francis as the top religion newsmaker of the year for the third year in a row. As big a newsmaker as he was, Francis didn't get my first or second place vote. I voted for the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, S.C. -- the martyrs who welcomed the man who would kill them, and the survivors who forgave him in a stunning followup that cleared the way for a large-scale removal of Confederate symbols in public places. My second choice, close behind: the Coptic Christian martyrs who, as much as anyone, represented the human cost of the murderous savagery of ISIS. 

In fact, for me, the biggest question was figuring out which items to vote for as separate or unrelated. ISIS has been creating such deadly chaos that it warrants a news item of its own, yet the November attacks in Paris and San Bernardino massacre were huge enough to list as well. And that doesn't even count the January attacks in Paris, which were more of an Al Qaeda operation. Hell (almost literally), we could have filled the entire list up with the horrors of attacks in Kenya, Mali, Tunisia and elsewhere.

But to be sure, there was more big news, especially involving marriage, the environment and pope, pope, pope. I can understand why my colleagues put the same-sex marriage decision as number one, as it was a capstone event to one of the biggest social revolutions in U.S. history. But I didn't list it quite so high, because who was really surprised? It was already legal here and in many states, and a week or so beforehand, I was at a gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention, where the question was not how the court would rule but how social conservatives would respond to the inevitable. That's the odd thing about revolutions. Sometimes, looking back, you realize it's happened long before it's officially happened. The New York Times' James Reston famously wrote in 1987: "I think we've won the cold war and don't know it." By the time Gorbachev was riding off into the Soviet sunset in 1991, it seemed old news.

coptic martyrsAnyway, here is the list, in numerical order based on the RNA vote. At the end of each item, I'll put where I voted it.


1) The U.S. Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage in a historic 5-4 decision in June. (5)

2) Thousands of migrants, many from wartorn Syria, pour into Europe by sea and land, stirring right-wing resistance in some countries and compassion fatigue even from countries that welcomed them. (6)

3) ISIS expands its reign of horror in Syria and Iraq. It claims responsibility for beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians, the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, the deaths of hundreds on a Russian airliner, and deadly bombings in Beirut and Paris. (1)

4) Anti-Muslim rhetoric flares in the U.S. and Europe as some politicians call for surveillance of Muslims and a ban on Muslim refugees, citing terrorism fears. (9)

5) Pope Francis makes a historic visit to the United States where he greets crowds in Washington, New York and Philadelphia, and speaks before Congress and the United Nations. (7)

6) Paris reels from its second major terrorist assault in 2015 on Nov. 13 as attackers linked to the so-called Islamic State kill at least 130 and wound many others at a concert hall, restaurants and other sites. (2)

7) Pope Francis issues encyclical Laudato Si on the environment, a call for replacing fossil fuels linked to global warming and lamenting a throwaway culture. Meanwhile, religious leaders call for similar goals at the November Paris climate summit. (10, as much for the second sentence as the first)

8) A white-supremacist gunman is charged in the shooting deaths of nine black worshipers in Charleston, S.C. In the wake of the tragedy, many Southern institutions remove displays of Confederate symbols. (4)

9) The #BlackLivesMatter movement draws support from faith-based groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and Unitarian Universalists, amid increased scrutiny of police killings of black suspects and racial issues in public universities. (13, mainly because I think faith-based groups were more followers than leaders in what seems a secular-led movement.)

10) Pope Francis continues his reformist agenda — ending a three-year supervision of U.S. nuns, speaking out for the needy, streamlining the annulment process and recommending a more pastoral tone while upholding church laws on divorce and remarriage. (15)

The others in my top 10:


Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik kill 14 and injure 21 in San Bernardino, Calif. Fears of violence in the name of Islam also arise as Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez is charged in the deaths of five U.S. servicemen in Chattanooga, Tenn. My #3, RNA's #11.

Early presidential campaigning pulses with religious rhetoric, as Republican candidates appeal for conservative Christian votes. Some candidates call for surveillance of and banning U.S.-entry to Muslims. My #8, RNA's #15.





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Nuns back Obama on carbon rules

Written by Peter Smith on .

Organizations of women religious sisters, including one that's active in Pittsburgh, are backing new, stricter rules on carbon emissions under a plan released by President Obama this week.

The statement by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group for most orders of nuns, says in part:

"Climate is a common good given to all and meant for all. Each of us has a responsibility to cooperate with God to protect our common home and to care for all of creation."


Both the nuns and President Obama cited Pope Francis' recent encyclical, Laudate Si, calling for urgent action on climate change.

Also endorsing the plan are the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, a Kentucky-based order that has sisters in Pittsburgh from the former Vincentian Sisters of Charity. The orders merged in 2008: 


"We acknowledge that for Pennsylvania, which is experiencing much concern around fracking for natural gas, that these regulations pose large challenges for the health of our people," the statement said. "Our hope is that we can all work together to face these challenges for the sake of future generations and our beloved planet."








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RIP Nicholas Winton, Holocaust hero

Written by Peter Smith on .

WINTON 1A remarkable era came to an end Wednesday with the death of Nicholas Winton, who rescued hundreds of Czechoslovak Jewish children from death at Nazi hands in the late 1930s and lived long enough to be an enduring witness to what one person can do to resist evil.

Mr. Winton died at 106 in his native Britain. Many had signed petitions asking that this last living "Schindler" be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, but alas, as the award only goes to living persons, that chance has now passed.

"I did it merely because it had to be done and nobody else was doing it," Mr. Winton told me in 1998 in Prague, when I was working as a freelancer and covered a reunion with many of the graying "children" he had rescued.

He is credited with rescuing 669 children, most of them Jewish, by arranging transports to Britain and Sweden. 

At the time a young stockbroker, Mr. Winton went to Prague at the request of friends who were working with refugees as Czechoslovakia was coming under Nazi occupation. He bent rules, falsified papers and did whatever else he could to enable the escape of children whose parents couldn't or wouldn't leave themselves. He always said he was most haunted by the failure to get the last and largest transport out of the country; the train trip was canceled due to the September 1939 outbreak of World War II.

But to see some of those he rescued, click here for one of the most powerful pieces of television you will ever see (hint: after the 40 second mark).



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Methodist bishop cites highs, lows

Written by Peter Smith on .

photo 8In his second-to-last address as spiritual leader of Western Pennsylvania's 170,000 United Methodists, Bishop Thomas Bickerton offered a best-of-times/worst-of-times portrait of the denomination's status here.

There are "amazing stories of growth" in some churches, with some new ministries being launched. But at the same time, there are a "growing number of churches that are ending their ministry," he said. "These once vital and independently driven churches can no longer sustain a ministry and maintain a building and are closing their doors."

Some, he said, are closing gracefully, looking for a way to pass the torch to other ministries in their community. Others "can only see their immediate future and are unwilling to discuss how God might use them to usher in a new chapter of what it means to be church in that region."

Bishop Bickerton made the comments in his annual state of the church address before the annual meeting of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, taking place this week in Grove City. The denomination has about 800 churches in 23 counties, and it's the largest Protestant body in the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area.

Bishop Bickerton, who was first elected to the position in 2004, is ending his tenure here next year.

He lamented there are cases in some churches of racism and opposition to women clergy, but he took heart that some of them are trying to do better.

He ended with a note of hope, saying he's seen "place after place that, on paper, don't look like they stand a chance. ... Yet they press on, you press on to be the church of Jesus Christ."


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