ere are my picks for the top ten religion stories of 2005:
1. The death of Pope John Paul II in early April and the election two weeks later of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI was the runaway winner of the year. The extraordinary electronic and print media coverage of these two events was a reminder how hungry people are for authentic spiritual leaders.
2. Natural catastrophes -- hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados and tsunamis -- energized the relief efforts of many religious groups throughout the world. While the disasters in Pakistan and South Asia touched few Americans directly, it was different with hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and the Midwest tornados. Clearly, first world countries are not immune to horrific dislocation and death, and massive destruction. At year's end, it was not certain that New Orleans, a major American city, would be rebuilt.
3. The Middle East continued to be a fiery cauldron of violence frequently fueled by religious extremism. The Iraq war, denounced by many Islamic leaders as a replay of the Christian Crusades, also revealed the lethal rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. For much of 2005 there seemed to be positive movement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and the new Palestinian leadership following Yasser Arafat's death. But that leadership seemed either unable or unwilling to curb terrorist attacks against Israel or assert its own authority. Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons and the obscene threat from that nation's president "to wipe Israel off the map" forced the world to confront the grim possibility of a mushroom cloud in the Middle East from a leader who denies the reality of the Holocaust.
4. The growing power of the religious right in the United States reached into many phases of American public and private life, including battles over evolution, intelligent design (a front for creationism), abortion, same-sex unions, embryonic stem cell research, and evangelical Christian proselytizing at public institutions including the Air Force Academy. A comatose Terri Schiavo was more than an ugly contest between her husband and her parents. For some, she was the helpless symbol of gross government interference, but for others she was a martyr in the "pro life" campaign.
5. What John Paul II once called "Christian Europe" struggled with its growing Islamic population. The rioting in France and the collision between "secularism" and Islamic extremists were symptoms of a continent in turmoil. Militarily, Europeans defeated the Muslims in past centuries, but the current demography war may have a far different outcome.
6. The Roman Catholic Church, especially in the U.S. and Ireland, suffered from a continuing sexual abuse scandal involving priests. The staggering financial costs of payments to victims bankrupted some dioceses, and the Vatican's new restrictions upon gay men as priests made big news everywhere.
7. The commercial success of Christian pop culture -- films, CDs, books, rock groups -- did not go unnoticed in the entertainment industry. NBC launched "Revelation," a short lived TV series, and C.S. Lewis' Christian allegory of "Narnia" was one of the year's most anticipated films. In addition, American political leaders, particularly Democrats, struggled to reach the large number of "religious voters" with the appropriate religious language and symbolism. The 2006 and 2008 elections will reveal the success
of such efforts.
8. The genocide in Darfur, Sudan, went on during 2005 as many black Africans were murdered by official and semi-official Muslim killers. Despite the cries and whispers of the victims and widespread condemnation by political and religious leaders, the killings have not stopped.
9. In June, a quarter-million people in New York City attended Billy Graham's last public religious services. The world-famous evangelist first achieved fame in the same city more than 50 years ago, but Graham, like his audiences, have both changed greatly in that half-century.
10. 2005 saw the deaths of Rosa Parks, Simon Wiesenthal, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Archbishop Iakovos, and three cherished rabbinical colleagues: Balfour Brickner, Karl Richter and Elijah Palnick.
James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the forthcoming book The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of Us.