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Riccardo De Luca, Associated Press
A faithful tosses in the air a jersey with the colors of the Argentine flag as Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sept. 18, 2013.

Religion played a prominent role in news events in 2013 from the change in leadership at the Vatican to the ongoing religious freedom challenges throughout the world and in the United States, according to rankings by several news organizations and publications.

The emergence of Pope Francis, who was elected head of the Roman Catholic Church in March, was the overriding religion story this year.

Outside of Argentina and the Vatican, few people had heard of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio before he was elected pope and took on the name of Francis. But that changed in just nine months, during which time he became a social media sensation who the Associated Press said captivated Catholics and non-Catholics alike with a new tone of openness, modesty and tolerance.

"Without challenging core church doctrine, he suggested it was time to rethink policy on divorce, focus more on serving the poor, and devote less rhetoric to condemnations of gay marriage and abortion," reported the AP, whose members ranked the Vatican changeover as the third overall biggest story of the year.

Pope Francis' fame wouldn't have happened without his predecessor unexpectedly resigning — something that hadn't happened in papal leadership in almost 600 years. Pope Benedict XVI, now 86, cited age and health concerns as reasons for stepping down and creating the unusual situation of past and present popes living within the Vatican compound, a development that the Religion Newswriters Association ranked as the second biggest story of the year.

Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service wrote that Benedict "perhaps single-handedly transformed the papacy from a lifetime appointment to an office that is bigger than any single man."

Religious freedom

Until the year's end, the legalization of gay marriage and its implications for religious freedom played out in courtrooms and state houses throughout the United States, landing it among the top 10 faith stories for 2013.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the federal Defense of Marriage Act, triggering a string of judicial and legislative decisions legalizing same-sex marriage in several states, including New Mexico and Utah in December. Today, gay marriage is legal in 18 states and in the District of Columbia.

The sudden change in momentum for gay rights has religious leaders scrambling to secure legal protections for not just clergy and religious institutions but also for individuals who claim their religious beliefs prevent them from recognizing a same-sex ceremony.

Stories about business owners who refused to accommodate gay marriage ceremonies for religious reasons captured national headlines in 2013 as examples of the ongoing conflict between gay rights and conscience rights. The online blog Religion Clause, which tracks religious liberty cases worldwide, ranked the combined rulings against a wedding photographer in New Mexico, a baker in Colorado and an innkeeper in Great Britain as No. 3 in its top 10 church-state and religious liberty developments of the year.

But not all faith leaders came out against gay marriage this year, according to Huffington Post rankings. Some 50 ministers performed gay marriages in support of now-former Methodist Rev. Frank Schaefer, who was tried and defrocked this year for officiating the marriage of his gay son.

The conflict over conscience rights will continue to make headlines in 2014 as the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in November to hear an appeal by national retailer Hobby Lobby, the owners of which say the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate violates their religious beliefs against abortion.

Hobby Lobby's lawsuit is among more than 70 that have been filed against the government over the ACA requiring insurance plans to cover contraceptives. The Obama administration tried to accommodate faith-based schools, hospitals and other groups but most were not satisfied with the solution, earlier this year, to use a third party to provide birth control coverage.

In another anticipated Supreme Court ruling next year, the justices heard arguments in November on whether prayers offered to open the town council meetings in Greece, N.Y., violated the constitutional rights of those who don't want to participate.

Religious persecution

The top political story of the year for the Christian Post was the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

"This would not be the first year that Christians have been persecuted for their beliefs, and Christians are not the only religious group suffering from attacks due to their beliefs (as Tibetan Buddhists in China, Bahá'í in Iran or Shia Muslims in Pakistan can attest), but 2013 has been particularly notable for the large increase in violence against Christians," the CP reported.

Thousands of Christians in Egypt and Syria were persecuted and killed because of their faith. But one expert told the CP that about 60 percent of the Christians killed this year were in Nigeria, where a killing spree by Boko Haram fighters killed 14,000 people, most of who were Christians.

"Muslim UK minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi recently warned that 'A mass exodus is taking place, on a biblical scale. In some places, there is a real danger that Christianity will become extinct,'” reported the Huffington Post, which ranked Christian persecution as No. 3 on its top 10 religion news list.

Ranked second by Huffington Post was the remarkable recovery of a young victim of religious persecution, Malala Yousafzai.

She first captured headlines last year when she survived a gunshot wound to her head for defying Taliban prohibitions against girls receiving an education. This past year, the 16-year-old Pakistani spoke at the United Nations and received numerous honors for courageously speaking out against regimes that tarnish Islam.

"Islam says that it is not only each child's right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility," she reportedly said. "The Taliban think we are not Muslims but we are. We believe in God more than they do, and we trust him to protect us."

The RNA rankings put religious persecution at No. 7, citing coverage of "extremist Buddhist monks fomenting attacks on Muslims in Myanmar and Muslim extremists targeting Christians at churches in Egypt, an upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and a church in Peshawar, Pakistan."

Other news

Other influential religion stories mentioned in the RNA, Huffington Post and Christian Post rankings for 2013 were:

• A comprehensive survey of American Jews by the Pew Research Center found that being Jewish was more about ancestry and culture than about religion. A couple of interesting findings were three in 10 Jews believe a person can believe that Jesus was the messiah and still be Jewish, and 58 percent of Jews have a non-Jewish spouse today compared with 35 percent in the early 1970s.

• A broad political coalition of faith-based groups backed immigration reform, which passed the Senate but stalled in the House, where a budget standoff appeared to eclipse every other issue. The CP reports that the House appears poised to take up a series of immigration bills early in 2014.

• In addition to the religious issues surrounding same-sex marriage, other stories involving gay rights and religion in 2013 included the Boy Scouts of America voting to accept openly gay Scouts but not Scout leaders. Several Catholic leaders and the LDS Church supported the move while some evangelical leaders opposed it and launched their own alternative programs.

• Suicide struck the families of two influential pastors in 2013. The deaths of Matthew Warren and Isaac Hunter prompted a national discussion to engage faith leaders in removing the stigma of mental health problems.

• Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah coincided in what was dubbed "Thanksgivukkah," RNA reported, an event that had not occurred since the 1800s and won't happen again for an estimated more than 75,000 years.

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown