Religion inspired countless other acts of forgiveness, mercy, and hope this year. But religion — or perversions of it, some would say — also inspired horrific violence: the “faith-based” cleansing of ancient lands, and bombings and shootings motivated by scriptural justifications. It was a year also of religious-inspired activism, seen perhaps most prominently in a pope who advocated for the poor and for a solution to climate change. Here is an overview of some of the most consequential religion stories of the past year, with thoughts on what to look forward to 2016.

Image via REUTERS / Goran Tomasevic / RNS

Christian leaders have hailed as an act of bravery and selflessness the shielding of some Christians by Muslims after suspected al-Shabab gunmen in Mandera County ambushed a passenger bus.

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President Obama supports the right of Muslim Americans to celebrate religious holidays, the White House said Dec. 11. He just can’t give them the day off.

Responding to a petition on the White House’s “We the People” site, the White House declined to declare federal holidays for the Muslim holy days of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

That’s because Congress has only designated 10 federal holidays each year: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

“Proposals for new permanent federal holidays are typically the province of Congress,” the White House said.

This week's Wrap was guest curated by Sojourners contributor Adam Ericksen. Read along for his top stories and notes from the week!

There was a lot of negativity in the news this week, but mercy also filled the airwaves. In case you missed it, here’s a list of some merciful events from the week:

1. Pope Francis Opens the Door to ‘Year of Mercy’ in a Time of Fear

Sure, we have some differences, but we’re still crushing on the Pope. “To pass through the holy door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.”

Kaeley McEvoy 12-01-2015

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Hate crimes in America dipped across the board in 2014, except in the category of anti-Muslim crimes, which rose about 14 percent over the prior year. Given the barbaric Islamic State attacks in Paris last week and elsewhere recently, that latter trend seems destined to accelerate.

The presence of hate crimes against Muslims is no new phenomenon. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, there typically recorded between 20-30 hate crime against Muslims per year and after 2001 that number rose to nearly 500.

This summer, we saw the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C. On Nov. 15 in London, a man pushed a Muslim woman into an oncoming underground train. And on Thanksgiving Day, a man in a taxicab in Pittsburgh, Pa., shot his driver in the back for being Muslim.

These incidents do not need to be listed as statistics to validate reality but they do need to be heard.

Todd Green 09-09-2015

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If our nation is to remember the lives of all who have suffered because of 9/11, Christians will need to do their part to renegotiate the terms for who and what we remember. Otherwise, “never forget” will remain a well-intended but shallow slogan that encourages us to elevate some lives above others, and to turn a blind eye to the violence, injustice, and hatred directed at Muslims in our name.

If our nation is to remember the lives of all who have suffered because of 9/11, Christians will need to do their part to renegotiate the terms for who and what we remember. Otherwise, “never forget” will remain a well-intended but shallow slogan that encourages us to elevate some lives above others, and to turn a blind eye to the violence, injustice, and hatred directed at Muslims in our name.

Sara Weissman 08-18-2015

Image via RNS/REUTERS/Parwiz

Supporters of the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change included the grand muftis (highest authorities in religious law) of Uganda and Lebanon and government representatives from Turkey and Morocco. The conference itself, the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium, was co-sponsored by Islamic Relief Worldwide, the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and GreenFaith.

The declaration comes at a moment ripe for climate change discussion, in the wake of President Obama’s announcement of a Clean Power Plan on Aug. 3. The plan requires states to reduce carbon emissions from coal power plants starting in 2017. It’s also a timely precursor to the upcoming United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris this December.

The declaration cites climate change research, followed by a detailed call to action. Among other things, it puts pressure on those attending the United Nations Conference on Climate Change to set clear goals, calls on wealthy and oil-producing nations to be leaders in curbing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and asks that all nations commit to 100 percent renewable energy or a zero emissions strategy.

Screenshot via RNS / Youtube

Screenshot via RNS / Youtube

To celebrate their 50th birthdays, Mara Gubuan and her Urbandale, Iowa, high school classmates invited six elite Muslim female athletes to RAGBRAI, the annual bicycle ride that took place July 19-25 across the Hawkeye State.

The idea was to “create a counter-narrative” to dispel the misconception that Muslim women don’t compete in sports. The riders of Team Shirzanan, from mostly Muslim countries, showed it could be done, even while wearing headscarves during July’s summer heat.

Usaid Siddiqui 05-12-2015
Photo via Asianet-Pakistan /

Muslims hug with each other after Eid-ul-Fitar prayer in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo via Asianet-Pakistan /

What followed after two gunmen were killed trying to carry out an attack on an anti-Muslim “Draw Muhammad Contest” was predictable.

Pamela Geller, the organizer of the event, called for war, American Muslims condemned the attack, and the mainstream media rehashed the very old and exhausting debate about whether Islam has a violence problem.

This routine unfortunately reeks of collective responsibility, an antithesis to sound moral ethics in all societies, including Western ones. 

the Web Editors 04-24-2015

1. Drone Strikes Reveal Uncomfortable Truth: U.S. Is Often Unsure About Who Will Die
Following the president’s admission this week that two Western hostages were killed in a drone strike in Pakistan, protestations against the veiled drone program have re-escalated. “Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.

2. Infertility and the Role of the Church
This week is Infertility Awareness Week. Writer Rachel Marie Stone dives into some of the attitudes about infertility and reproductive technologies in the church.

3. Meet Your New Attorney General
After postponing a vote for more than five months to fight along party lines over abortion language in a human trafficking bill, the Senate voted Thursday to approve the nomination of Loretta Lynch, 55, making her the first black woman to head up the Justice Department.

4. Those Countries at the Top of the World Happiness Report Also Have Great Press Freedom Rankings
See what country falls where and read more about the correlation.

Ken Chitwood 04-13-2015
Photo via Mohammad Izzraimy, / RNS

Model Firman Nazirulhasif wears Boston-based Munir Hassan’s clothing line. Photo via Mohammad Izzraimy, / RNS

Radical Muslims. The phrase elicits images of ISIS militants and terror in the desert, perhaps grainy YouTube videos, Kalashnikovs, and raised fists.

What about a man in an ankle-length garment and cotton headscarf carving the air with his skateboard?

Is that a radical Muslim?

Along with shirts bearing the “Radical Muslims” image and a Nike-like swoosh saying “Just Dua It” (dua being nonobligatory Muslim prayer, or supplications), Boston-based Munir Hassan has created an entire line of stereotype-shattering clothing for American Muslims.

In an explicit attempt to flip the script on popular images of Muslims and Islamic symbols, Hassan’s own Sidikii Clothing Co. merges cultures in fashion-forward, Muslim inspired designs.

“I’m Muslim, I’m American. I was born both,” said Hassan.

“I wanted to design clothing that showcased different pieces of my culture inclusively.”

Photo: Robin Marchant / Getty Images for SiriusXM / RNS

Cardinal Timothy Dolan (right) hosts a minister, a rabbi, and an imam. Photo: Robin Marchant / Getty Images for SiriusXM / RNS

Is religion the cause of so much of the violence racking today’s world? Or is faith just one of many factors? Or collateral damage?

Those are tough questions, the kind that are usually posed to religious leaders, not by religious leaders.

But Cardinal Timothy Dolan wanted to switch things up on his weekly radio show, so he invited a minister, a rabbi, and an imam to tackle that issue. What sounds like the opening line of a joke was actually an in-depth discussion of “the rise of religious intolerance.”

“I don’t know if there would be anything more pertinent today, or more timely today, than religious harmony, or the lack thereof,” Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, said March 31 in opening a special edition of his program on the Catholic Channel of the SiriusXM network.

“The elephant in the room is that today, whether we like it or not, religion is often the cause of scandal,” he said.

“Religion is supposed to be an overwhelmingly positive force that brings people together, that increases love and understanding, human progress and human enlightenment.”

But many people today — believers and nonbelievers alike — see religion as the opposite, he said, and “that keeps the four of us up at night.”

Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington Feb. 15. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

After taking heat from the religious right for saying Christians and Muslims have all committed horrors in God’s name, President Obama is now angering the religious left with an upcoming White House conference on combating ”violent extremism” that seems to focus only on Muslims.

The back-to-back controversies raise the question: Can Obama — or any president — safely discuss faith in today’s political crosswinds?

No, say experts who keep a close eye on presidential God talk. It’s a perilous walk, taken without a safety net as news and social media voices wait to savage him in a nanosecond.

Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast triggered fury when Obama mentioned the Crusades, the Inquisition and Jim Crow segregation laws as examples of Christian violence in God’s name.

“This is not unique to one group or one religion,” Obama said. “There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

Yonat Shimron 02-12-2015
Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Chris Keane / RNS

A woman places flowers near where three young Muslims were killed. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Chris Keane / RNS

Preliminary police reports describe a long-simmering dispute over parking as the motive for the killings of three Muslim students at a Chapel Hill condominium Feb. 10.

But many Muslims in the Raleigh-Durham community and beyond are not so sure. The triple murders in this usually harmonious university town immediately took on a larger narrative of hate crimes against Muslims and charges of atheists baiting Muslims.

On Wednesday, police charged Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, of Chapel Hill with three counts of first-degree murder.

They allege he shot Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh inside their condominium near the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill.

Andrea Mandell 01-29-2015
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures / RNS

“American Sniper” movie poster. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures / RNS

As American Sniper continues raking in money at the box office, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee remains worried about “serious threats” being made to Arabs and Muslims.

On Jan. 27, Warner Bros. issued a statement saying the movie studio “denounces any violent, anti-Muslim rhetoric, including that which has been attributed to viewers of American Sniper. Hate and bigotry have no place in the important dialogue that this picture has generated about the veteran experience.”

Director Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper, who plays real-life sniper Chris Kyle, have yet to comment, though over the weekend Eastwood called Sniper an anti-war film.

The film is based on Kyle’s memoir. He was shot to death in 2013 in the U.S. In the book, Kyle writes of killing 60 Iraqi “savages” during his four deployments: “Savage, despicable evil. That’s what we were fighting in Iraq.”

Since the film opened, tweets have echoed the sentiment, referring to “ragheads,” “vermin scum” and hatred of Muslims.

Beau Underwood 12-08-2014

Does Christianity have a future in Iraq? 

Linda Sarsour protests during a rally in Ferguson, Mo. Photo via Linda Sarsour/RNS

ISIS terrorist rampages, waves of anti-Muslim hate speech and fear-mongering Islamophobia are inspiring an outburst of online activism in the form of Twitter hashtags.

The question is: Does it work, especially over the long term?

An army of “clicktivists” — a mix of earnest advocates and pointed satirists — has entered the fray armed with 140-character positive, peaceful or humorous counter-messages.

Using names such as #TakeOnHate, #IStandUpBecause, and #NotInMyName, the pushback approach promotes the complexity, diversity and positive contributions of Islam and Muslims. Others, such as #MuslimApologies, offer sarcasm in service of the same message.

Yet the hashtags are often immediately co-opted by trolls spewing an opposite message. And some experts question whether clicktivist campaigns have lasting worth.

Linda Sarsour has no doubt they do. She’s a Brooklyn-based Palestinian activist in the streets and on social media and a co-creator of #TakeOnHate. The hashtag is accompanied by a resource website, launched in March by the National Network for Arab American Communities.

“The insidious thing about anti-Arab hate speech is that it seems to be acceptable, where the ‘N-word’ or anti-Semitic remarks are not taken with the same degree of outrage,” said Sarsour, who was chased down the street in September by a man who was later arrested for threatening to behead her

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, photographed at the Neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute. Photo courtesy of AEI/RNS.

A campus appearance by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken Muslim-turned-atheist activist, is being challenged again, this time at Yale University where she is scheduled to speak Sept. 15.

While her previous campus critics have included members of religious groups, especially Muslims, this time the critics include Ali’s fellow ex-Muslims and atheists.

“We do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience,” members of Yale Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics posted on Facebook Sept. 12. “Although we acknowledge the value of her story, we do not endorse her blanket statements on all Muslims and Islam.”

Those statements include calling Islam “the new fascism” and “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” She has called for the closing of Muslim schools in the West, where she settled after immigrating from her native Somalia, and is a vocal advocate for the rights of women and girls in Islam.

Jeremy Courtney 07-31-2014

Iraqis holds up a banner with the red letter 'N' in Arabic, which stands for Christian. SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

When I first saw Americans joining in solidarity with Iraqi Christians through the #WeAreN hashtag and protest campaign, I was encouraged. Our team at Preemptive Love Coalition had been sounding the alarm about the targeted persecution of minorities in Iraq through private emails and social media messages for weeks, in between making urgent appeals in our effort to provide lifesaving heart surgeries for children amid the violence.

Most of our efforts were largely unsuccessful before the “Islamic State” gave Mosul’s Christians an ultimatum to (1) convert to Islam; (2) pay a submission tax; or (3) “face the sword.”

After Islamist militants began marking the homes of Christians in red paint with the Arabic letter “N” (Nazarene) for extermination or expropriation, we tried again to use our proximity to the problem in Iraq to provoke our friends in America to pay attention by tagging a photo “#WeAreN,” in which I had symbolically marked myself with an Arabic “N.”

But it was not strictly an act of solidarity with Iraqi Christians. We had the targeting of Turkmen, Yezidi, Shabak, and even Sunni Muslims in view, as well. #WeAreN was more about the marking of Christians; less about the marking of Christians.

Muslims and minorities across Iraq immediately sensed the gravity of the tactics deployed by the Islamic State: if one group is marked, we are all marked. If we stand by in silence today while others are marked for extinction, our time will come, and there will be no one left to stand for us.

In response, Muslims across Iraq joined together in protest, prayer, and viral photographs saying “We are Iraqi. We are Christians.”

New Pew Research Center study had Americans rate religious groups. Image courtesy Bill Webster, via Pew Research Center.

A new Pew Research survey finds U.S. adults feel most warmly about people who share their religion or those they know as family, friends or co-workers.

Americans give their highest scores to Jews, Catholics, and Evangelicals on a zero-to-100 “thermometer” featured in the survey, “How Americans Feel about Religious Groups,” released Wednesday. They’re nestled within a few degrees of each other: Jews, 63; Catholics, 62; evangelicals, 61.

In the middle of the chart: Buddhists, 53; Hindus, 50; Mormons, 48. Trending to the chilly negative zone: atheists at 41 and Muslims at 40.

Pew took the thermal reading because “understanding the question of how religious groups view each other is valuable in a country where religion plays an important role in public life,” said Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of religion research.