In terms of giant headlines and spilled ink, there is no question that the lightning strike by U.S. special forces that killed Osama bin Laden was the year's most spectacular news event, featuring a deadly brew of religion, politics and violence. Thus, it isn't surprising that members of the Religion Newswriters Association selected the death of the world's most infamous radical Muslim as No. 1 in their poll to name the year's top 10 stories on the religion beat. In addition to the symbolism of bin Laden's death in a post 9/11 world, the poll's organizers said the killing spurred “discussions among people of faith on issues of forgiveness, peace, justice and retribution.”
However, when I think about religion news events in 2011, another image from Pakistan flashes through my mind -- a shower of rose petals.
I am referring to the jubilant throngs of lawyers and demonstrators that greeted 26-year-old Malik Mumtaz Qadri with cheers, rose petals and flowers as he arrived at an Islamabad courtroom to be charged with terrorism and murder. Witnesses said Qadri fired 20 rounds into Salman Taseer's back, while members of the security team that was supposed to guard the Punjab governor stood watching.
Moderate Muslim leaders, fearing for their lives, refused to condemn the shooting and many of the troubled nation's secular political leaders -- including President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Taseer -- declined to attend the funeral. Many Muslim clerics, including many usually identified as “moderates,” even praised the act of the assassin.
Calling himself a “slave of the Prophet,” Qadri cheerfully surrendered. He noted that he had killed the moderate Muslim official because of Taseer's role in a campaign to overturn Pakistan's blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam, especially those who convert from Islam to another religion.
A few weeks later, Pakistan's minister of minority affairs -- the only Christian in the national cabinet -- died in another hail of bullets in Islamabad. Looking ahead, Shahbaz Bhatti had recorded a video testimony to be played on Al-Jazeera in the likely event that he, too, was assassinated.
”When I'm leading this campaign against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized -- persecuted Christian and other minorities -- these Taliban threaten me,” said Bhatti, who was immediately hailed as a martyr by Catholic bishops in Pakistan. “I'm living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights.”
Meanwhile, the gunmen tossed pamphlets near Bhatti's bullet-riddled car that threatened him by name and stated, in part: “From the Mujahideen of Islam, this fitting lesson for the world of infidelity, the crusaders, the Jews and their aides ... especially the leader of the infidel government of Pakistan, Zardari. ... In the Islamic Sharia, the ruling for one who insults the Prophet is nothing but death.”
The assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti placed 16th in this 2011 poll. As for me, I fear that these events say as much, or more, about the future of Pakistan and trends worldwide than the long-expected death of bin Laden.
Here's the rest of the Religion Newswriters Association's top 10 list:
No. 2 -- Congress holds intense hearings on trends among American Muslims, with the House focusing on evidence of radicalism in some mosques and the Senate focusing on crimes reported against Muslims.
No. 3 -- Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn is charged with failure to report the suspected abuse of a child -- the first active American Catholic bishop to face criminal prosecution in such a case.
No. 4 -- Catholic leaders introduce a new English version of the Roman Missal, the first major change to this translation since 1973.
No. 5 -- Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) vote to allow “local option” on the ordination of partnered, noncelibate gay clergy.
No. 6 -- Pope John Paul II is beatified -- the last step before sainthood -- in a Vatican rite attended by a million-plus people.
No. 7 -- Radio preacher Harold Camping predicts the end of the world, twice.
No. 8 -- Evangelical progressive Rob Bell publishes “Love Wins,” a controversial book challenging centuries of Christian doctrine about hell and damnation.
No. 9 -- The Personhood Initiative, designed to outlaw abortion, fails at the polls in Mississippi. The number of laws restricting abortion, however, rises nationwide.
No. 10 -- Historians and readers celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, while traditionalists, including Southern Baptist leaders, criticize the latest gender language tweaks in the New International Version.