Top religion stories and newsmakers of 2015

This is the time of year for my favorite interview: a review of the top religion stories and newsmakers of the year. This year, I was joined by two top religion journalists: Kim Lawton of PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, and Tom Gjelten of NPR.

In 2015, the first thing that struck us was the prominence of religion in the news cycle. Pope Francis made huge news with his encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si', and his visits to both the United States and Africa were given wide coverage.

But there is -- sadly -- a lot of negative religion news as well. First, there is the "religion" claim of the Middle Eastern terrorist organization, the Islamic State group (commonly called ISIS). Tom Gjelten pointed out that this question is highly debated by scholars. Although ISIS uses the word "Islamic" to describe itself, I have yet to meet a Muslim who thinks its adherents know the first thing about Islam. Most regard them as terrorists, pure and simple, who are trying to use religion as "cover."

Whatever candidates for office say, ISIS members should not be called "Islamic terrorists"; they are simply "terrorists" ... there is nothing "Islamic" about them.

For me, the Turkish Muslim thinker, Fethullah Gülen, sums it up well: "ISIS members are either completely ignorant of the spirit of Islam and its blessed messenger, or their actions are designed to serve their individual interests or those of their political masters. Regardless, their actions represent those of a terrorist group and they should be labeled as such and be brought to justice."

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However, those in league with ISIS carried out bloody terror attacks in both Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. And the result has been a burst of Islamophobia from people who know nothing about Islam. Kim Lawton provided details of this backlash: Mosques have been attacked; women in hijabs have been harassed, and in Philadelphia, the head of a pig (yes, a real pig!) was thrown into a mosque. (This is meant as an insult; Muslims do not eat pork).

When it comes to the "top religion newsmaker" of the year, we all agreed that Pope Francis was hands-down number one. So we moved to Number 2. And I heartily agreed with both selections.

Tom Gjelten named Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain who has a new book on confronting religious violence. I interviewed him in person not long ago ... and he was one of those people whose personal "vibes" tell you they are the "real deal" when it comes to spirituality.

Then, Kim Lawton made another nomination: the church congregation in Charleston, S.C., where a killer shot the minister and several other parishioners to death. What is especially noteworthy: they chose to forgive the shooter. Extraordinary.

And 2015 was an extraordinary year, yet 2016 promises to be even more contested as religion (or pseudo-religion) wraps itself around the presidential election campaign, or vice versa.

To hear the entire interview, visit www.interfaithradio.org after 5 p.m. Dec. 18.


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