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RNA Members Name Middle East War and Its Impact Top Religion Stories of 2023

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RNA Members Name Middle East War and Its Impact Top Religion Stories of 2023

News Story by Religion News Association

The Israel-Hamas war, along with the rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents in the U.S. and around the globe, were named the top international and domestic religion stories of 2023 by members of the Religion News Association.

Pope Francis was named the top religion newsmaker of the year. He kept active despite health problems, traveling widely, convening a historic synod, denouncing anti-LGBTQ+ laws, overseeing the Vatican repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and facing various controversies.

This is the fourth time Pope Francis has been voted top newsmaker, having previously been selected 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the runner-up for newsmaker after facing massive protests over a proposed judicial overhaul and criticism over Hamas’s Oct. 7 surprise attack as well as for Israel’s heavy military response.

He was followed by U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, whose election as House speaker elated many conservative evangelicals who saw him as one of their own.

Other top U.S. stories included the ongoing legislative and legal battles following last year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the exodus of thousands of congregations from the United Methodist Church and the nationwide political debates over sexuality and transgender rights.

Other top international stories included the Anglican Communion verging on schism and Vatican pronouncements on the baptism of transgender Catholics and its repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Members of the Religion News Association, a 74-year-old association for reporters who cover religion in the news media, have been voting on the annual story poll for decades.

“Although there were clear standouts in the voting, what struck me this year was how diverse and wide-ranging the stories were,” said Ken Chitwood, RNA president in a press release.

“It’s notable that seven different domestic headlines – and four international stories – received first place votes,” he said. “It shows how vibrant the religion beat is and that no one knows its ins and outs, highlights and focal points, better than RNA members.”

Top 10 U.S. Religion Stories of the Year

  1. Incidents of hate against Jews and Muslims skyrocket after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas against Israel, and Israel’s military assault in Gaza. In Illinois, a Palestinian-American boy is killed and his mother wounded in an alleged hate attack. The conflict prompts numerous protests, and college campuses see fierce debate about the war and the boundaries of free speech. Many Jewish groups and evangelical Christians staunchly support Israel, while many Muslim and progressive religious groups decry Israel’s invasion.
  2. Legislative and legal battles continue following the 2022 Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, with numerous states now banning or restricting abortion, and 20 others solidifying abortion access. Ohio voters enshrine a right to abortion in the state constitution. Sen. Tommy Tuberville blocks hundreds of military nominations and promotions in opposition to the Biden administration policy allowing troops to travel to obtain abortions in states where it is legal.
  3. More than 5,600 congregations leave the United Methodist Church. Many join more conservative Methodist denominations or go independent in a widening schism over theology and the role of LGBTQ congregants in what had long been the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination.
  4. Debates over sexuality and the rights of transgender persons roil local and national politics, with school boards and libraries caught in debates over the content of books and curricula, the use of pronouns and drag queen story hours. The number of states restricting transgender athletes reaches at least 20. Religious conservatives generally support such restrictions, with religious progressives opposed.
  5. Donald Trump polls strongly among white evangelical Christians as he campaigns to regain the White House. Several Republican challengers tout their Christian faith, with Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis wooing supporters of erstwhile candidates Tim Scott and Mike Pence, while Vivek Ramaswamy touts his Hindu faith while seeking Christian votes. President Joe Biden gains strong Jewish support, but faces backlash from Muslims and other progressive religious voters over his strong support of Israel in its war with Hamas.
  6. Evangelical Christian conservatives cheer the election of one of their own as House speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson, longtime culture warrior active in the courthouse, classroom and Congress. Some progressive faith leaders, meanwhile, sound the alarm about Johnson’s past activism against LGBTQ rights and his skepticism about the separation of church and state.
  7. Pope Francis removes Bishop Joseph Strickland from leadership of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, following increasingly fierce criticism of the pontiff by the traditionalist prelate. Francis also acts against another frequent critic, stripping retired American Cardinal Raymond Burke of his Vatican salary and apartment subsidy.
  8. A two-week revival begins spontaneously after a February chapel service at Asbury University in Kentucky. The round-the-clock sessions of prayer and praise drew tens of thousands of visitors to the evangelical school, while also prompting similar revivals at other Christian colleges.
  9. The U.S. Supreme Court rules in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis that a Christian designer of wedding websites can refuse to work with same-sex couples, citing her right to free-speech. The court also rules in Groff v. DeJoy in favor of a Christian postal worker who wanted Sundays off, saying employers need to accommodate workers’ religious practices unless it results in substantial increased costs.
  10. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) expels five churches for having women pastors, including California megachurch Saddleback. The SBC Executive Committee’s interim president resigns upon revelations he falsified his work record. SBC leaders face backlash for approving a legal brief opposing a lawsuit by a victim of child sexual abuse.

Top 10 International Religion Stories of the Year

  1. Hamas launches a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers, and taking about 240 hostages. Following this, Israel begins a full-scale assault in Gaza, killing at least 18,000 civilians and militants. The war reignites intense debates around Palestinian liberation and Zionism, and spikes in Islamophobia and antisemitism worldwide.
  2. Muslims and Jews in numerous countries experience high levels of tension and vulnerability amid increases in hate crimes following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s response. Demonstrators denounce bigotry in many cities, championing opposing sides in the war.
  3. The Anglican Communion verges on schism as conservative church leaders, representing about 85 percent of the global Anglican population, declare no confidence in the communion’s traditional instruments of unity – including the leadership of archbishop of Canterbury. This follows a Church of England decision to let priests bless same-sex marriages and civil partnerships.
  4. The Vatican says it’s permissible, under certain circumstances, for transgender Catholics to be baptized and serve as godparents. Pope Francis criticizes laws that criminalize homosexuality as “unjust.” A meeting of German bishops and laity calls for the church to approve blessings of same-sex unions.
  5. The Vatican formally repudiates the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the theories backed by 15th-century “papal bulls” that legitimized the colonial-era seizure of Native lands and form the basis of some property laws today.
  6. Pope Francis gathers a synod of Catholic bishops and laypeople, which approves a non-binding document citing an “urgent” need for fuller participation of women in church governance. Progressives had hoped, and conservatives feared, the gathering would send stronger signals on behalf of women in leadership and of welcoming of LGBTQ+ people.
  7. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says there are “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the slaying of Sikh independence advocate Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia. India denies the claim. U.S. prosecutors say an Indian official directed a foiled plot to assassinate another prominent Sikh separatist living in New York.
  8. Ukraine’s parliament preliminarily approves an effective ban on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), disputing its claim to have cut ties with Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The government and rival Orthodox move to evict the UOC from holy sites. Other Ukrainian religious leaders tell of Russian persecution in occupied areas and ask for continued U.S. support, which is opposed by some American religious conservatives.
  9. More than 400 die after Pastor Paul Mackenzie of Good News International Church orders his followers to fast to death in order to meet Jesus, according to Kenyan authorities.
  10. Azerbaijani troops retake Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenian separatists. As many as 100,000 people – virtually all the region’s ethnic Armenians – flee what they consider a historic heartland of Armenian Christianity. Armenia’s prime minister decries the exodus as “a direct act of an ethnic cleansing,” which the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan (which is predominantly Muslim) strongly denies.

Top 5 Religion Newsmakers of the Year

Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican celebrates the mass for the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, who died on December 31, 2022, at the age of 95. Rome, Italy on May 1, 2023 / Photo by m.iacobucci.tiscali.it (DepositPhotos)
  1. Pope Francis, who despite health problems, travels to far-flung countries, convenes a synod with unprecedented lay involvement, denounces anti-LGBTQ+ laws, oversees the Vatican repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and faces controversy over his comments about the Israel-Hamas war and the church’s handling of abuse claims against priest-artist Marko Rupnik.
  2. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing government’s effort to weaken Israel’s judiciary triggered mass street protests, and who faced criticism for security failures during Hamas’s Oct. 7 surprise attack as well as for Israel’s heavy military response.
  3. U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, whose election as House speaker elated many conservative evangelicals who saw him as one of their own.
  4. The students of Asbury University in Kentucky, who spearheaded a spontaneous two-week revival that drew thousands to the evangelical campus and inspired similar revivals at other Christian colleges.
  5. Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which have held large protests against Israeli treatment of Palestinians and challenged the notion that to be Jewish is to be Zionist, drawing strong criticism from more conservative Jewish groups.
Religion News Association
Religion News Associationhttps://rna.org/
The Religion News Association envisions a global community of journalists who elevate religious literacy in the news media.

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