FaithWorld

What were the top religion news stories of 2009?

candles

Hindu lights Diwali candles in Agartala, India, 17 Oct 2009/Jayanta Dey

It’s Top 10 time again. As 2009 nears its end, Time magazine and the Religion Newswriters Association in the U.S. have produced their lists of the main religion news stories of the year. They take quite different views.

Time‘s list is quite broad, the top three being the advance of secularism in Europe, Pope Benedict’s invitation to conservative Anglicans and President Barack Obama’s decision to expand the faith-based office created by George Bush.

The RNA picked Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world as its top story, followed by the role of religious groups in the U.S. health care reform debate and the Fort Hood massacre allegedly carried out by an American Muslim officer.

Another Top 10 list out there comes from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. It also put Obama at the top of its list — “New President brings change, but delays some tough decisions.”

Not surprisingly, these are all quite U.S.-centered assessments of the main religion stories of 2009. What would you say was the world’s most important religion news story this year? Please send in your suggestions.

U.S. approves first “ethical” embryonic stem cell lines

stem-cellsThe U.S. government has approved the first 13 batches of human embryonic stem cells, enabling researchers using them to get millions of dollars in federal funding as promised by President Barack Obama in March.

According to Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the stem cell lines met strict ethical restrictions. The cells, for instance, have to have been made using an embryo donated from leftovers at fertility clinics and parents must have signed detailed consent forms. (Photo:Ampoules with stem cell storage medium/Peter Macdiarmid)

As our Health and Science Editor Maggie Fox reports, Collins described these criteria as an acceptable compromise between those who want this research to go ahead and critics who oppose it because human embryos are destroyed in the process of making these stem cells.

Pilgrims snub H1N1 flu and flock to Saudi Arabia

haj-flu (Photo: Palestinian pilgrim gets vaccinated in Gaza Strip, 6 Nov 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Standing in the middle of a long queue at Jeddah airport, Mahdi Sharif is one of millions of Muslims waiting to enter Saudi Arabia to start the annual haj pilgrimage despite a global outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

Little fazed by the spread of the virus, Sharif, who has been waiting for two years to be selected from a raffle of 5,000 Kurdish Iraqis to visit Mecca, wears a protection mask but never thought for a second of delaying his pilgrimage.

“This year I was chosen so I came, I could not say no. The happiness of being chosen is stronger than fear (of illness),” said Sharif in a muffled voice through his medical mask.

Health experts say haj pilgrims risk H1N1 flu wave

grand-mosque-mecca2

Waves of H1N1 swine flu spread by some three million pilgrims travelling to and from Mecca for next month’s haj threaten to pile pressure on healthcare systems around the world, disease experts said on Thursday.

“No region can be considered free from risk,” said the U.S. and Arab experts, including Saudia Arabia’s deputy minister for preventative medicine, in a study in the journal Science.  The pilgrimage itself, in the last week of November, provides perfect conditions for the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, which is transmitted in droplets and by physical contact.

“The density of pilgrims, the nature of the rituals, and the shoulder-to-shoulder contact recommended during prayers provide a perfect transmission atmosphere,” wrote Shahul Ebrahim of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Ziad Memish of Saudi Arabia’s health ministry.

Global report shows abortion rates falling

abortionA new study into global abortion rates was released on Tuesday by the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank which studies sexual and reproductive health.

Here are some of the main findings:

* ABORTION TRENDS:

– The rate of safe abortions dropped between 1995 and 2003 to 15 from 20 per 1,000 women aged 15-44, but unsafe abortions declined only slightly — to 14 from 15 per 1,000 women aged 15-44. The overall rate fell to 29 from 35 per 1,000 women.

– Globally around 70,000 women die each year from the effects of unsafe abortions, a figure that has barely changed in the last 10 years. An estimated 8 million women annually experience complications and need medical treatment, but only 5 million actually get that care.

from AxisMundi Jerusalem:

Jewish Custom in the Time of Swine Flu

ISRAEL/In Israel, the death count for the H1N1, or swine flu, outbreak reached 7 yesterday, and for some citizens, fighting the virus has taken on some religious dimensions.

Israel's leading paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote an article about health concerns raised by Israel's Ultra Orthodox media: kissing mezuzahs. A mezuzah is a tiny encasement holding a piece of parchment with a Jewish prayer enscribed on it. Mezuzahs are nailed to most doorways inside a Jewish home, and traditionally, Jews will touch the mezuzah and kiss their fingers when entering a house.  An ultra-orthodox journalist decided to ask seven doctors their opinion on whether this tradition could be dangerous in the Swine flu era.

According to Yedioth Ahronoth, "The doctors unanimously agreed that bacteria leave high levels of residue on such objects, but six of them refused to comment on mezuzot in particular, 'so as not to get in trouble with the rabbis'."

Flu fears impact worship services

Flu fears are already changing the face of some religious services, from Mexico where church gatherings are discouraged to the United States where wine shared from a common cup has been suspended in some parishes. We’ve already blogged about this but offer more detail from other places here.

FLU/

U.S. Catholic bishops have issued general guidelines saying clergy and lay ministers who distribute communion wafers “should be encouraged to wash their hands before Mass begins,  or even to use an alcohol based anti-bacterial solution before and after distributing Holy Communion.”

“They should instruct people who feel ill not to receive from the cup,” containing wine which Catholics believe becomes the blood of Jesus Christ during Mass.

No prayer against swine flu?

swine-flu-mass-1Jim Forsyth, our stringer in San Antonio, Texas, reports:

San Antonio has been hard hit by the swine flu, but if local Roman Catholics go to Mass to pray for deliverance from the disease, they may not get the relief they had hoped for. Archbishop Jose Gomez has issued a letter to priests in the archdiocese recommending they make changes in the Mass because of the swine flu outbreak.

“I am requesting that you offer Holy Communion under only one species, bread only,” Gomez told his priests. “Also, during the Lord’s Prayer, please suspend the holding of hands and the shaking of hands or embracing during the sign of peace.”

“Common sense would dictate that washing of hands by ministers and others who come in contact with people can be effective in preventing the spread of swine flu,” Gomez wrote.

If swine flu isn’t kosher in Israel, is it halal in the Muslim world?

Our Jerusalem bureau had this interesting little story today about the swine flu outbreak:

Swine flu not kosher in Israel
JERUSALEM, April 27 (Reuters) – Swine flu? Not in the Jewish state.

“We will call it Mexico flu. We won’t call it swine flu,” Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, a black-garbed Orthodox Jew, told a news conference on Monday, assuring the Israeli public that authorities were prepared to handle any cases.

Vatican edits pope on condoms and AIDS solutions

pope-in-planePope Benedict’s comments about condoms on his flight to Cameroon have made headlines worldwide. They have been quoted extensively on many websites run by news organisations and also by the Vatican. But that hasn’t stopped the same Vatican from editing them after the fact to try to make them sound more acceptable. (Photo: Pope Benedict answers questions in the plane to Africa, with Rev. Georg Gänswein (L) and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (C), 17 March 2009//Alessandro Bianchi)

The main change on the Vatican website comes in the most controversial part, where he says: “It (AIDS) cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem.” This was criticised in Europe and the United States as going beyond a doctrinal question and spreading untruths about public health policies. Now the Vatican’s Bollettino (daily bulletin — here in the original Italian) has watered this down to have him say:   “On the contrary, the risk is that they increase the problem.” The Milan daily Corriere della Sera has the original transcript in Italian.

The Vatican editors also softened the pope’s talk about solutions. In the original, he said: “The problem of AIDS cannot be solved only with money …” In the new version, this comes out as: “The problem of AIDS cannot be solved only by advertising slogans …”