Two major news events tied to Southern California--the suicides of Heaven's Gate cult members and the Southern Baptist boycott of Walt Disney Co. products--
were among the top national news stories in religion during 1997, according to the Religion Newswriters Assn.
The year-end poll of religion specialists at secular news organizations rated the March suicides by followers of Marshall Applewhite at a Rancho Santa Fe mansion as the third-biggest religion story of the year.
Writers voted the September death of Mother Teresa of Calcutta the No. 1 religion story. Ranking second was the Promise Keepers' gathering in Washington.
The survey named the cloning of Dolly the sheep by a Scottish scientist fourth and the approval of full communion among four Protestant denominations as fifth in religion news significance.
In sixth place was the Southern Baptist Convention's vote in June to boycott any entertainment products connected to Burbank-based Disney. Company officials disputed charges--leveled by Southern Baptists and other conservative church critics--of an "anti-Christian agenda."
Other religion news last year was more local than national in interest.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese marked a big step toward a new cathedral center in September when ground was broken at a downtown parking lot. The cardinal also unveiled new guidelines for the celebration of liturgy in the parishes that stirred grumbling among some traditional Catholic groups.
Other significant religion stories included the death of John Wimber, the leading figure in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship network of churches worldwide; the admission of the Worldwide Church of God based in Pasadena as a member of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, and the first visit to Southern California by an Ecumenical Patriarch--in this case, Bartholomew, the Greek Orthodox churchman who heads the historic patriarchate of Constantinople. His Oct. 19-Nov. 17 U.S. tour included a strong address on the "sin" of environmental abuses at a conference in Santa Barbara.
Also, Donald Goor was installed as senior rabbi of the 900-family Temple Judea in Tarzana--by far the largest U.S. synagogue to be led by a gay clergyman. And Rabbi Richard Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, was elected president of Reform Judaism's Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Some items were less noticed, but noteworthy nonetheless. Hsi Lai University moved its Buddhist studies campus to Rosemead, and the Islamic Center of Northridge opened a $2.2-million mosque in Granada Hills, only the third worship facility to be constructed as a mosque in Southern California.
Reform and Conservative rabbis will open regional conventions Sunday in Palm Springs and San Diego, respectively.
* Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of the four-campus Hebrew Union College, and Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, will address the Reform rabbis, who are meeting Sunday through Thursday at the Palm Springs Hilton Hotel. The 52nd annual regional convention represents more than 250 rabbis in 13 states and British Columbia.
* Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City since 1986, and syndicated radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger, who belongs to a West Hills synagogue, will talk to Conservative rabbis from Western states who are meeting at San Diego's U.S. Grant Hotel Sunday through Wednesday.
Christian recording artist Randy Stonehill will perform and host a regional competition for new talent next weekend at Pasadena's Lake Avenue Church. Stonehill will appear at 8 p.m. Friday in a concert for the expected 150 artists and songwriters attending two days of workshops organized by the Gospel Music Assn. Winners of the Saturday night competition will go to Nashville to perform during Gospel Music Week, April 19-23. (615) 242-0303.
Egyptologist Kent Weeks of American University in Cairo--the driving force behind the Theban Mapping Project, which recently uncovered the largest tomb ever discovered in the Valley of the Kings--will speak next weekend at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester during a conference on Middle East archeology. The three-day event, starting Saturday, also will feature U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering, formerly U.S. ambassador to Jordan and to Israel. Other speakers will include Leila Badre of Beirut's American University and Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University. Registration is $105; $10 for students. (310) 338-1971.
* The Christian comedy duo Stephen Hicks and Jerry Cohagan will perform at 6 p.m. Sunday at Long Beach's First Church of the Nazarene, 2280 Clark Ave. Donation. (562) 597-3301.