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Islamic extremists top faith writers’ stories of the year

This image made from video posted on a militant website July 5, 2014, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq.
This image made from video posted on a militant website July 5, 2014, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq. AP

As the year draws to a close, Barbara Walters issues her list of most fascinating people and the Associated Press, an international news group serving news publications and outlets across the world, releases its top news stories of the year.

Because religion is such a specialized field, the Religion Newswriters Association, a group dedicated to helping journalists write about religion with balance, accuracy and insight, sends out a call to religion writers across the country to submit their choices for the top religion stories of the past year.

Here is a summary of items on this year’s list.

Topping the list are actions by self-styled Islamic State extremists, including the expansion of terror into Iraq and Syria, driving out the Iraqi army from Mosul and exiling ancient Christian communities, Yazidis and other religious minorities on threat of death.

Other choices on the list are:

• In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rules that two closely held companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, can claim religious objections to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.



• Pope Francis continues to draw both worldwide admiration and consternation for his efforts toward inclusiveness, including outreach to the needy and people of other faiths.



• Mainline Protestants take controversial steps regarding performing same-sex weddings and ordaining gay and lesbian clergy. United Methodist minister Frank Schaefer is defrocked for performing same-sex weddings but is later restored by the church’s Supreme Court. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA allows pastors to perform same-sex marriages in states where they’re legal. The Moravian Church’s largest province approves the ordination of gays and lesbians.



• Health-care workers, many of them faith-based, successfully remain at their West African posts as the Ebola epidemic spreads. The treatment of American medical missionaries gains wide attention.



• Women clergy make strides individually and collectively. The Church of England overwhelmingly votes to allow women bishops. Seventh-day Adventists agree to vote on women’s ordination in 2015. For the first time, women lead three of the nation’s most prominent mainline churches, while the U.S. Navy names its first female head chaplain.



• Movie critics call 2014 “the Year of the Bible” because of the release of a dozen films based on the Bible or with faith-rooted scripts chronologically from Noah and the Exodus to the Rapture. The movie “God’s Not Dead” makes $60 million and “Son of God” nearly as much.



• Mormon leaders acknowledge for the first time that church founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, took as many as 40 wives, some of whom were already married and one just 14 years old. The church’s disclosures are part of an effort to be transparent about its history at a time when church members are increasingly encountering disturbing claims about the faith on the Internet.



• The Jewish community was shaken when prominent Georgetown Rabbi Barry Freundel was charged with voyeurism after police found a hidden camera inside a building housing a ritual bath, known as a “mikvah.” Freundel, who pleaded not guilty, was fired by his synagogue. He was a highly influential leader within modern Jewish Orthodoxy, and the accusations had reverberations even in Israel. The U.S. Attorney’s office set up a hotline number for potential victims.



More than 300 journalists who write about religion took part in the survey. Founded in 1949, the Religion Newswriters Association has headquarters at the Missouri School of Journalism. The association has conducted its Top Religion News Stories of the Year since the early 1970s.

Prosperity Gospel

Duke Divinity School Professor Kate Bowler’s book on the history of the American prosperity gospel will be featured at a roundtable discussion during the Conference on Faith and History at the American Historical Association conference this weekend in New York City.

“Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel,” published in June 2013 by Oxford University Press, addresses the question of how millions of American Christians came to measure spiritual progress in terms of their financial status and physical well-being, according to a Duke Divinity School news release.

Bowler spent eight years traveling across North America and to Israel interviewing and researching archives to tell the first broad account of the prosperity gospel, one of the most popular religious movements of the last 50 years, according to the release. Her book traces the roots of the prosperity gospel, explores its themes, and focuses on contemporary figures including Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and Joyce Meyer.

Bowler teaches courses at the Divinity School in American Christianity and world Christianity with an emphasis on historical and ethnographic methods. Her research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, megachurches, and religion and ethnicity.

Zen meditation

The Chapel Hill Zen Center will welcome the New Year tonight with two periods of meditation at 8 and 8:50 p.m. These will be followed by the Bodhisattva Ceremony at 9:20 p.m. and a Fire Ceremony at 9:50 p.m.

For the Fire Ceremony, participants write down habits and tendencies, difficult states of mind, tangled aspects of relationships they would like to release. An outdoor fire will burn the papers along with name cards from memorial services held at the temple during the past year and incense stubs that have accumulated throughout the year.

Everyone is welcome for the whole program or to any part of it.

The event will end with potluck refreshments. Beverages will be provided.

The Zen Center is located at 5322 N.C. 86 North between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.

Contact Flo Johnston at fjohnston314@gmail.com or call 910-361-4135.

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