Religious leaders worldwide, across faiths who died in 2020

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FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013 file photo, Rev. Joseph Lowery speaks at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr., spoke, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Lowery, a veteran civil rights leader who helped King found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and fought against racial discrimination, died Friday, March 27, 2020, the family said. He was 98. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

NEW YORK – The Catholic priest who for decades had been one of the Vatican’s top experts on the Latin language died on Christmas Day at a nursing home in Milwaukee. A United Methodist Church bishop in the West African nation of Sierra Leone died in a traffic accident in August as he was engaged in efforts to resolve the denomination’s conflicts over inclusion of LGBTQ people. Back in March, a 49-year-old priest in Brooklyn became the first Catholic cleric in the United States killed by the coronavirus. They were among many religious leaders — some admired worldwide, others beloved only locally — who died in 2020. Here are some of them.


Bishop Phillip A. Brooks, 88, senior pastor of New St. Paul Tabernacle Church of God in Christ in Detroit and second-in-command in the Black denomination’s national leadership. Official obituaries did not specify the cause of Brooks’ death. It occurred in April, during a period in which numerous Church of God in Christ bishops and pastors died of COVID-19.

Ernesto Cardenal, 95, a renowned poet and Roman Catholic cleric who became a symbol of revolutionary verse in Nicaragua and across Latin America. He was suspended from performing his priestly duties by St. John Paul II for defying the Church by serving as a cabinet minister in the Sandinista government. The penalty lasted more than three decades before being lifted by Pope Francis in February 2019.

Thich Quang Do, 91, a Buddhist monk who became the public face of religious dissent in Vietnam while the Communist government kept him in prison or under house arrest for more than 20 years. Do was the highest leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which has constantly tangled with the government over religious freedom and human rights.

Reginald Foster, 81, a Milwaukee-born Catholic priest who for 40 years served as one of the Vatican’s paramount experts on Latin. He died on Christmas Day at a Milwaukee nursing home; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that he had tested positive for COVID-19 less than two weeks earlier.

Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, 84, a scholar of the Talmud, the ancient text that forms the foundation of Jewish law. Born in the Soviet Union, he came to the United States in 1956 and spent more than 50 years as the top academic at the Talmudical Seminary Oholei Torah in Brooklyn. He was also a member of the Central Committee of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis.

Ayatollah Hashem Bathaei Golpayegani, in his late 70s, a prominent Shiite cleric in Iran. He was one of the representatives for Tehran in the Assembly of Experts, an all-cleric body that will choose the successor of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One of his teachers in seminary was the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.