2016-07-27
Last January, on a raw and dreary Inauguration Day in the nation's capital, America's 43rd president sketched out his vision of a religiously inclusive America.

"Church and charity, synagogue and mosque, lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws," said President George W. Bush, a conservative Christian who promised to welcome religious groups as Washington's partner.

Never before had a president mentioned Muslims in his inaugural address, and Muslim groups were delighted with their new place at the table. One Muslim official said the country's Muslims had finally come of age. "We'll just have to wait and see what develops," he said.

But what developed on a picture-perfect morning eight months later was not what either Bush or the Muslims had in mind, when bands of Islamic extremists hijacked four airplanes and slammed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside on Sept. 11.

Suddenly, the nation was at war and thousands were dead. In the days and hours after the devastating attacks, Arabs and Muslims were public enemy No. 1. Mosques were vandalized, women in veils harassed and Sikhs mistaken for Muslims were assaulted. Only when the anger subsided did Muslims slowly come out of hiding and into the spotlight.

The sudden emergence of the American Muslim community and global Islam is perhaps the biggest religion story of 2001, a year when the sacred and the secular collided head-on in the public square.

"The year 2001 proved that we can't understand our nation or our world without understanding religion," said Melissa Rogers, executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

From ground zero to the White House, from research labs to the Middle East, religion continued its march across the headlines, influencing the private lives of believers and the public agenda of nations. The year also highlighted religion's seeming contradictions -- its power to destroy in the hands of zealots, its comforting balm in the hearts of the faithful.

More than anything, Sept. 11 demonstrated the tremendous pull of religion in public and private life -- and the spiritual and political challenges posed by fanatics who act in the name of God. Attorney Carl Gell seemed to sum up the national mood as he exited a Sept. 12 prayer service at St. Matthew's Cathedral in downtown Washington. "Your faith either gets stronger, or it gets weaker after something like this," Gell said. "No one stays the same."

In the post-Sept. 11 world, Muslims struggled to reclaim their faith from extremists. Copies of the Quran flew off bookstore shelves and interfaith services sprouted around the country. A renewed interest in spirituality and faith -- including Islam -- flourished around kitchen tables and in sanctuaries across the country.

A recent poll by the Pew Forum shows modest gains in favorability for Muslims. Between March and November, ratings for U.S. Muslims rose from 45 percent to 59 percent. After the attacks, Muslims were no longer the unknown people "over there" but the now-familiar people who share offices, schools and neighborhoods.

"Suddenly, it seems everyone is taking a crash course in understanding Islam," Rogers said. Islam wasn't the only faith to be jolted by Sept. 11. Jewish groups, already dismayed by the ongoing violence in Israel, fended off accusations that U.S. support for Israel had caused the attacks.

Christians, including Bush, distanced themselves from comments made by evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell that God allowed the attacks because Americans had embraced abortion, homosexuality and pagans. Rogers' survey showed 73 percent of Americans "totally disagree" with Robertson and Falwell, who later said his remarks were "uncalled for at the time."

The course of events also highlighted the promises and perils of interfaith relations. There were bright spots, like when Jewish and Christian women shopped with fearful Muslim women, and when the American Jewish Committee gave $10,000 to help rebuild a small Greek Orthodox Church destroyed in the attacks. There were also hot spots, seen in the widening gulf between several Protestant denominations and the Jewish community over Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and the controversial call by the president of the Southern Baptist Convention for the conversion of Muslims at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Throughout the conflict, religious leaders wrestled with how to respond to terrorism and impending military strikes. Most were cautiously supportive of the new war. In a landmark statement, Catholic bishops drew on centuries of Just War theory to affirm the country's "moral right and a grave responsibility to defend the common good against mass terrorism."

Obviously, there was a world before Sept. 11, even though it may be hard to recall. Much of the year was consumed by the president's controversial plan to funnel federal money to faith-based groups providing social services. The plan passed the House in July, but it remains stalled in the Senate over concerns about possible federally funded discrimination. John DiIulio, Bush's high-profile faith-based cheerleader, left the White House late this summer while the bill floundered.

Conceding an uphill fight against public opinion, some religious groups pleaded with Bush to halt the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Bush refused and McVeigh died on June 11.

The new president also wrestled with embryonic stem-cell research, a promising yet controversial procedure that could yield cures for a number of diseases. Pope John Paul II lectured Bush on the research and "other related evils," but Bush agreed in August to allow research only on stem-cell colonies that already existed. In November, much of the religious world recoiled at the news that a Massachusetts company claimed it had successfully cloned human embryos, though the research proved ultimately fruitless.

In February, the pope commissioned a new class of 44 cardinals, the elite princes of the church who will eventually help elect John Paul's successor. Among the U.S. cardinals were Theodore McCarrick of Washington, Edward Egan of New York and Avery Dulles, a theologian at Fordham University.

In spite of his 81 years, the frail pontiff continued his globe-trotting -- visiting Greece, Syria, Malta, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia to seek peace with estranged Orthodox churches. Entering his 24th year as pope, John Paul also put down a scandal by convincing an African archbishop, Emmanuel Milingo, to leave the Korean woman he married in a Unification Church ceremony and return to the celibate priesthood.

Around the world, perilous conditions highlighted the dangers of missionary work. In May, the Peruvian air force shot down a small plane carrying a missionary family -- Jim Bowers and his son survived the crash, while his wife, Roni, and infant daughter did not. Two Texas women, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, held by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for months were finally released in November, burning their head coverings so U.S. military rescue crews could find them in the desert darkness.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made history in November by electing its first African-American president. Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said he hopes his three-year term will help African- Americans who have become "lukewarm" in their faith to return to the Catholic Church. The Unitarian Universalist Association also elected its first black president, William Sinkford, in June.

Evangelical circles were captivated by an obscure Old Testament prayer that became a publishing sensation. "The Prayer of Jabez" by

Bruce Wilkinson topped best-seller lists for weeks, drawing fans to its promises of divine blessings for those who simply knew how to ask for them. Despite its overwhelming popularity, only 21 percent of "born-again" Christians had heard of the book, compared to 71 percent who knew Harry Potter, according to one poll.

For many, one world ended on Sept. 11, and an uncertain one dawned amid the smoke and fear on Sept. 12. Priorities were reassessed, relationships evaluated, pews revisited. Much of what seemed so important before, suddenly wasn't. The Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the badly divided Presbyterian Church (USA), sensed the change.

"Our internal quarrels," Rogers said. "seem trivial in light of these awful events."

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