photo: asterix611, FlickrPublic debate and controversy over a planned Islamic community center and mosque to be built near New York's Ground Zero ignited a national debate about religious freedom that kept the story in the news for months.

The story was voted the No. 1 religion story of 2010 in the annual Top 10 Religion News Stories of the Year poll of Religion Newswriters Association members. The center's leading proponent, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, was voted the 2010 Religion Newsmaker of the Year.

Public opinion and outcry over the mosque reached a peak when a pastor of a small Florida church threatened to burn a Qu'ran in protest, a bravado that fueled fears of international backlash against the United States until the pastor backed down.

As newsmaker of the year, Rauf beat out Pope Benedict XVI, the many faith-based workers helping victims of the Haitian government, and Sarah Palin, who devoted significant portions of her second bestselling book arguing that candidates for office take a public Christian stand.

The complete Top 10 Religion Stories of 2010, in order from first to tenth are:

1. A proposal to build an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero leads to a national debate on religious freedom, with strong statements on both sides as the 9/11 anniversary approached. A Gainesville, Fla., pastor, who vowed to burn copies of the Qu'ran in protest, backs down.

2. The catastrophic earthquake in Haiti sparks relief efforts by many and varied faith-based groups. One by Idaho Southern Baptists leads to child-smuggling accusations, as well as to examinations of others' practices. Leader Laura Silsby is imprisoned for four months.

3. Pope Benedict XVI is accused of delaying church action against pedophile priests in Ireland, Germany, the United States, and other countries when he led the Vatican office in charge of discipline 1981 to 2005. Several bishops resign. Benedict continues to criticize the church's handling of past cases.

4. The rise of the Tea Party movement is seen by some as a return to political prominence for the religious right; others see it as stressing economic rather than social issues. Mormon Glenn Beck pushes a Washington rally. Election results are mixed. One Tea Party candidate who loses, however, is Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, who was pilloried for responding to critics with an ad that stated, "I am not a witch."

5. President Obama signs the health-care reform bill for which many faith-based groups labored. Near year's end the Catholic bishops repeat their strong opposition to it due to the belief that it provides funding for abortions, and lament support some Catholics gave it.

6. Sexuality continues as a hot topic among mainline congregations. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA votes for the fourth time to lift the ban on noncelibate gay clergy; the presbyteries are again voting on it. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America suffers scores of defections after its 2009 vote on the issue. The Episcopal Church is asked by the archbishop of Canterbury to take a lesser role in the Anglican Communion after a lesbian assistant bishop is ordained.

7. The prolonged economic slump spells trouble for additional churches and ministries. In the highest profile case, the Crystal Cathedral declares bankruptcy after downsizing efforts fall short. The Lutheran publishing house, Augsburg Fortress, drops its pension plan; Focus on the Family cuts 110 employees; the Seventh-day Adventist publishing arm removes top executives.