WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 (RNS) -- When the clock ticked past midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, the new year -- and indeed a new millennium -- dawned with both hope and trepidation. Doomsday sects anticipating Armageddon were left disappointed, while people of all faiths hoping for a momentous Jubilee Year were not.

At home and abroad, religion continued to impact the private and public lives of millions. Scientific discovery, ethnic identity, internal church votes and the candidacy for vice president by a Jewish senator from Connecticut all shaped the interaction of the human and the divine.

In a year dominated by the presidential election, perhaps the biggest story of 2000 came in August when Vice President Al Gore named Sen. Joseph Lieberman -- an Orthodox Jew -- as the first Jew to run on a major party presidential ticket, a watershed event in American religious and political history.

More than any other modern politician, Lieberman infused the public discourse with a deeply personal faith, calling for a greater role for religion in civic life and urging a "dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purposes."

Although ultimately unsuccessful in their race for the White House, the Democratic duo changed the political dynamics and opened the door for Jewish Americans to play a more prominent -- and perhaps more powerful -- role in the nation's public life in the future.

On the other side of the aisle, religion played an important role in the campaign of President-elect George W. Bush, a self-professed born-again Christian who weathered weeks of biting criticism for speaking at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school where the pope is seen as the anti-Christ and interracial dating was forbidden.

The Bush presidency promises to feature a high profile role for the murky mix of religion and public policy with his promised White House office for faith-based programs to allow "Methodists or Mormons or Muslims" to deliver social services.

Perhaps the greatest public policy accomplishment for the religious community came in late October with the agreement between the White House and Congress to erase the foreign debts of the world's poorest countries.

The Jubilee campaign attracted a diverse coalition of rock stars, bishops and rabbis to push the government to contribute $900 million over three years for an international relief fund. The first two installments took heavy prodding; another battle looms ahead next year.

This year also saw the country's Christian churches to be deeply divided internally by sex and gender issues, most prominently the role of gays and lesbians in church life.

Over the course of three months, the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians endured raucous protests and hundreds of arrests during church meetings, but left their assemblies largely upholding their positions against same-sex unions and gay ordination.

The nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, again made headlines in June when delegates voted to prohibit women from the pulpit, a long-held practice that was made official at the Orlando meeting.

The contentious summer meetings led to visible cracks within the churches, with conservative Episcopalians joining a dissident group and moderate Texas Southern Baptists withholding their money from church-run seminaries. Former President Jimmy Carter, the nation's best-known Southern Baptist, cut his ties to the "rigid" church.

Despite a push for greater inclusion in the Christian churches, ironically the greatest advancement for gay rights came in March when Reform rabbis voted to allow the blessing of same-sex unions, a decision that was heavily debated but without the same public hoopla in the Protestant denominations.

The nation's Catholic churches rallied around Pope John Paul II's call for a Year of Jubilee, with a focus on reconciliation and reflection. In May Catholics shed tears for New York Cardinal John O'Connor, who had emerged as the nation's most prominent -- and often controversial -- Catholic leader before succumbing to brain cancer at age 80.

Without a doubt, however, most Catholics focused their attention on their ailing pontiff and his whirlwind tour of the Middle East in March. Before leaving, John Paul issued an unprecedented apology for the past sins of the church, declaring that "to recognize the deviations of the past serves to reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present."

Touching down in the Middle East, John Paul followed the paths of Abraham and Jesus through the Holy Land. He prayed at Jerusalem's Western Wall, said Mass in the Upper Room, called for justice for Palestinians and visited Israel's somber memorial to the Holocaust.

"There are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah," the pope said of the Holocaust.

But the pontiff stopped short of formally apologizing for what some see as the Vatican's all-too-quiet role during the Holocaust. In a move that outraged many Jews, the pope also beatified Pope Pius IX, a 19th century Italian who kidnapped a young Jewish boy and raised him as a Catholic.

The Vatican also raised hackles with the ecumenical community in September with a declaration that only those "in the church have the fullness of the means of salvation." Vatican officials later tried to soften the document's impact, but Protestant churches, especially, said the document turned ecumenical relationships sour.

In the nation's court systems, religion continued to percolate, with several states involved in contentious battles over the display of the Ten Commandments. The U.S. Supreme Court spoke in landmark rulings in June, one saying that public schools must provide computer equipment and supplies to religious schools, the other saying that student-led prayer at public school football games is unconstitutional.

The justices also ruled that the Boy Scouts have the right to prohibit gays from leadership posts and membership. Religious groups lined up on both sides of the issue, and following the ruling, a flood of individual churches and organizations cut their support for the Scouts.

Abortion also continued its quiet but persistent role in the nation's public life, with the Supreme Court ruling that a Nebraska ban on "partial-birth" abortions is unconstitutional, angering religious conservatives. The contentious issue also became much more private in September when the Food and Drug Administration approved the French abortion pill RU-486, possibly moving the procedure from the clinic to the medicine cabinet.

Around the world, violence fueled by religious differences continued its march across history. Muslims and Christians battled in Indonesia and Nigeria, leaving thousands dead.

China continued its hard-line crackdown against spiritual movements, particularly Falun Gong, and was incensed when the Vatican canonized 120 Chinese Catholics martyred between 1648 and 1930.

Religious relief workers pulled out of Sierra Leone when the nation's civil war worsened, and the ongoing civil war in Sudan -- and the country's underground slave trade -- continued to distress religious leaders.

But by far the world's attention was most focused on the Middle East, where the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians collapsed and the prospects for peace seem dim. An ecumenical delegation of U.S. church leaders wrapped up the year with a visit to Israel, lamenting "the fears on both sides."

Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem have been canceled, and during a year when the world planned to mark the 2000th birthday of its most famous citizen, the village now symbolizes the struggles and unrest that have torn the region apart.

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