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Thursday, December 28, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Apocalypse threat tops this year's religion stories

Imagine the following event in your mind's eye.

President George W. Bush is addressing the United Nations amid global tensions about nuclear weapons. He closes with evangelical language that expresses his yearning for the triumphant second coming of Jesus Christ and prays that this apocalyptic event will unify the world - sooner rather than later.

Do you think the speech would cause a media storm? Do you think journalists would dissect his mysterious words, along with his theology? Would this be considered one of the year's most controversial religion-news events? Bush, of course, never delivered an address of this kind. However, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did say the following as he ended his dramatic United Nations speech on Sept. 20.

"I emphatically declare that today's world, more than ever before, longs for just and righteous people with love for all humanity; and above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet," he said, referring to a Shiite doctrine about a coming apocalypse.

"O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return and his cause."

If these references to "the perfect human being" do not sound familiar, there is a reason for that. This section of his address received little media attention. Thus, it isn't surprising that the Iranian leader's end times vision was not selected as one of the top 10 stories in the Religion Newswriters Association's 2006 poll. In fact, it didn't appear in the top 20 events.

Instead, the top story selected by the religion-news specialists was the deadly violence ignited by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in periodicals in Denmark and a few other European nations. Boycotts led to protests and then to destruction and, in Nigeria, Muslims and Christians died in the riots.

Clearly, mainstream journalists still struggle with the complicated religious beliefs that loom behind today's headlines. Offensive cartoons in the West are a huge story. But mysterious words in the East - even offensive words - do not draw nearly as much ink.

So what was Iran's outspoken leader saying?

"Ahmadinejad is calling upon God to bring about the coming of the 12th Imam . . . who heralds the Apocalypse," noted pundit Andrew Sullivan. "He is also saying that he will 'strive for his return.' It is the most terrifying statement any president of any nation has made to the U.N. We have a dictator on the brink of nukes, striving to accelerate the Apocalypse. . . . Paradise beckons."

Meanwhile, here is the rest of the RNA top 10 list:

-2. Pope Benedict XVI angers Muslims by quoting an ancient text linking Islam and violence. He quickly apologizes and later pays a diplomatic visit to Turkey.

-3. Episcopal leaders elect a female presiding bishop who favors rites to bless same-sex unions and supports the consecration of a noncelibate gay bishop. Thus, seven Episcopal dioceses refuse to recognize the leadership of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Some of America's most prominent parishes vote to align with Third World bishops and the Diocese of San Joaquin takes the initial steps to secede from the Episcopal Church.

-4. Ted Haggard resigns as National Association of Evangelicals president and is dismissed as pastor of the massive New Life Church in Colorado Springs after allegations of gay sex and drug use.

-5. Candidates backed by the Religious Right suffer key fall-election defeats, while Democrats take steps to reach out to churchgoers, especially Catholics.

-6. Religious voices grow louder for peace in Iraq. However, sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims increase. Elsewhere, an Israeli incursion into Lebanon follows new Hezbollah attacks, touching off another round of combat.

-7. The schoolhouse shooting deaths of five Amish girls in Bart Township, Pa., draws global attention to Amish beliefs about grace and forgiveness.

-8. (tie) "The Da Vinci Code" movie calls new attention to Dan Brown's novel, which says traditional Christianity is a fraud. Churches are divided over whether to boycott or hold discussion groups. The plot argues that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had a child.

-8. (tie) Same-sex marriage bans pass in seven of eight states during midterm elections. Arizona becomes the first state to defeat a ban.

-10. Bush vetoes a bill calling for expanded stem-cell research, pleasing religious conservatives and the disappointing liberals.