Obama’s year: Cairo top story?

President Barack Obama deserved the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, said the Norwegian Nobel Committee, because his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen … cooperation between peoples” had created a “new climate in international politics.”

Even Obama’s fiercest admirers admitted that his best work for peace occurred at lecture podiums, where the new president offered more of the soaring, idealistic words that helped him rise to power. Nobel judges, in particular, had to be thinking about his June 4 address at Cairo University, in which he promised an era of improved relations between America and the Muslim world.

It’s crucial, he said, for Americans and Muslims to realize that their cultures “overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Muslims and Americans must, for example, find ways to work together to defend religious liberty.

“People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart and soul,” he said. “This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive. … The richness of religious diversity must be upheld — whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. …

“Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.”

The Cairo speech — which included quotes from the Koran, the Bible and the Talmud — was the year’s most important religion story, according to a poll of mainstream reporters who cover religion news. The role of Obama’s liberal Christian faith in the White House race topped the 2008 Religion Newswriters Association poll.

Religious-liberty issues will continue to test the Obama team, as illustrated by the sobering numbers in a new “Global Restrictions on Religion” study released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. It found that citizens in a third of all nations — representing 70 percent of the world’s population — are not able to practice their religion freely, due to government policies or hostile actions taken by individuals or groups.

Among the world’s most populous nations, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan and India had the most intense restrictions on religion, especially limits on the rights of religious minorities.

The nations offering the greatest freedoms on religious practice were the United States, Brazil, Japan, Italy, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Here’s the rest of the RNA top 10.

(2) Faith groups were at the center of debates over health-care reform, which was the hottest topic in Congress for most of the year. The U.S. Catholic bishops consistently opposed the use of tax dollars to fund abortions, thus clashing with other religious groups that supporting an expanded government role.

(3) The role of radical forms of Islam in terrorism hit the news once again, due to the disturbing history of statements and actions of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the massacre of 13 people, including a pregnant woman, at Fort Hood.

(4) George Tiller, an outspoken specialist in performing late-term abortions, was shot while ushering at his Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in Wichita. The antigovernment radical charged with the murder, Scott Roeder, had in the past supported the views of writers who argue — see ArmyofGod.com — that violence against abortionists is morally justified.

(5) Mormons in California were attacked by some gay-rights supporters due to their lobbying efforts on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Anti-Mormon protests led to vandalism at some Mormon buildings.

(6) President Obama was granted an honorary degree in law from the University of Notre Dame, despite protests that this violated a U.S. bishops policy urging Catholic institutions not to honor those who openly oppose church teachings on the sanctity of human life.

(7) The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to ordain gay and lesbian pastors who live in faithful, committed, monogamous relationships, leading some congregations to start preparations to form a new denomination.

(8) The national recession forced budget cuts at a wide variety of faith-related groups — houses of worship, publishing houses, relief agencies, colleges and seminaries.

(9) Leaders of the Episcopal Church voted to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury and many other leaders in the global Anglican Communion. The Diocese of Los Angeles then elected a lesbian as a new assistant bishop.

(10) President Obama’s inauguration rites included a controversial invocation by the Rev. Rick Warren, a controversial benediction by the Rev. Joseph Lowery and, at a celebration beforehand, a prayer by New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay, noncelibate bishop.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.