The century -- death by 'quasi-religion'

The images are unforgettable, from the faces of the victims to the face of the tyrant who ordered them dead, from the shocking death camps to the spectacular rites of hate that made them possible.

The journalists who cover religion in the secular press have selected the Holocaust as the 20th century's most important religion event.

While the Holocaust stands alone atop the poll, members of the Religion Newswriters Association of America chose as the third-ranked event another example of what happens when political regimes claim god-like powers. This was the Russian Revolution, which led to Joseph Stalin and the Gulag, to Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution and on and on.

"It's hard to compare anything to horror of the Holocaust. It is a unique event, in so many ways," said historian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, America's best-known commentator on religious life. "But when we look at the whole century, we can see the Holocaust as the ultimate example of an even larger trend. It is the unforgettable event that helps us see the entire picture."

When historians add up the statistics, 100 million or more were killed by what Marty called the "quasi-religious tyrannies" of the 20th century. These regimes were secular. But they had charismatic, almost messianic leaders supported by hierarchical structures built on their authority. They produced elaborate systems of myths, symbols, scriptures, metaphysics, rituals, art, history and law. When the faithful in other faiths refused to convert or compromise, these regimes responded with deadly force.

Thus, many of this century's most horrific events shared cult-like characteristics - from Germany to Russia, from Tibet to Cambodia, from Rwanda to the Balkans. They were united by victims, tyrants, death camps and litanies of lies.

Here are the century's top 10 religion news events, as selected by the 30 reporters and editors who responded to a questionnaire prepared by the Religion Newswriters Association.

1. Six million Jews and millions of others die in Nazi camps, a Holocaust that leads to worldwide revulsion and the founding of the state of Israel.

While it's easy to call the Holocaust as a "Jewish event," it is also important to recognize that this event "represented a total breakdown at the heart of what was supposed to be a Christian civilization in Europe," said historian Steven Katz of Boston University, author of the multi-volume "The Holocaust in Historical Context."

"The murderers were supposed to be Christians, but all across Europe many people did not act as Christians. The church did not always act like the church. The Holocaust begins as a failure within Christendom."

2. The Second Vatican Council changes Catholicism's relationship with the world and other faiths. It's work in the early 1960s leads to ongoing efforts to reform the church's liturgies and teachings, sparking an era of creativity and tensions in the world's largest Christian body.

3. The Russian Revolution of 1917 ushers in 70 years of communism. Millions of religious believers are slaughtered in China, the Soviet Union and other nations. Visits to his native Poland by Pope John Paul II lead to a collapse of communism in Poland and, eventually, in the rest of Eastern Europe.

4. The Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles of 1906 launches modern Pentecostalism, which becomes the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the late 20th century. This can be seen as a capstone event after generations of evangelical movements that emphasized the role of personal conversion experiences in Christian faith.

5. The ordination of women begins in Protestant churches in the United States and spreads into Judaism. The United Methodist Church becomes the first mainline denomination to elect a woman bishop.

6. The Dead Sea Scrolls are discovered in 1947.

7. Radical Muslims gain influence throughout the wider world of Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini becomes the leader of a new theocratic state in Iran.

8. Pope John Paul is elected in 1978, becoming the first non-Italian Catholic pope in 450 years. He later survives an assassination attempt and continues his global evangelization efforts.

9. Led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the America Civil Rights Movement gains strong support from a broad religious coalition.

10. The non-violent tactics of Hindu leader Mohandas "Mahatma"' Gandhi inspire the world and end England's control of India.