From Merkel to an Eritrean priest: Top Nobel Peace Prize contenders

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In a year full of tumult, there were plenty of moments that renewed the human spirit.

Of those, Nobel Peace Prize watchers believe it was the heroes of the European migrant crisis who stood out the most.

"There's no doubt the migration crisis should be a key issue on the table. It's something that preoccupies virtually everybody in virtually every corner of the world," Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the think tank Peace Research Institute in Oslo, told NBC News.

Harpviken makes a list each year of frontrunners for the peace prize, and this year, he has placed German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the top.

Ultimately, it's anyone's guess who will be this year's Peace Prize winner — which will be announced Friday in Oslo.

While the list of nominees is kept secret, there are more than 270 names on it, according to the Norwegian Nobel Institute. That includes 205 individuals and 68 organizations.

Here are some of the top contenders.

Angela Merkel

The German chancellor has been praised for inviting migrants from Syria and other war-torn nations into her country, especially as other leaders blocked their borders to the approximately 800,000 people looking for a safe haven.

"I think the moral leadership she has shown in the European refugee crisis resonates with a larger global refguee crisis, and is something that should merit attention," Harpviken said.

But her welcoming attitude has also created tension among Germany's politicians. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told German newspaper Der Spiegel last week that German was "rapidly approaching the limits of our possibilities."

"Although the (country's) asylum law doesn't have an upper ceiling, there are real limits to how much pressure we can put on our cities and towns," he said.

Mussie Zerai

The Eritrean Catholic priest has helped rescue thousands of migrants by taking distress calls at all hours from sinking boats in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Using his contacts at the Italian coast guard, the 40-year-old has saved many lives — all from more than 1,000 miles away.

Harpviken feels the 40-year-old priest may have been overshadowed in recent months.

"He was on top of my list until a few days back," he said. "I haven't really seen him be remarkable in the course of the last eight months."

"He has certainly done outstanding things but I think to really merit the Nobel Peace Prize, he would have had to keep up the good pace."

Pope Francis

The pope's extraordinary commitment to social inequality and the environment has earned him some speculation as the 2015 Nobel peace winner. But his lack of open-mindedness about women being able to serve as priests is a knock against his popularity, and Harpviken wonders if past snubs indicate he won't win the Peace Prize this year.

"I think the pope could very well end up being the laureate. Since he hadn't received the prize so far, I read that as to indicate that the committee has been very hesitant to give it to him just for his words. They want to see some more tangible action."

That said, Francis also contributed to the normalizing of U.S. and Cuban relations with his recent visit to both nations.

"But I don't think that would be a main reason for giving him the prize," Harpviken said.

John Kerry

Along with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the secretary of state makes the shortlist for his work on the Tehran nuclear deal. But given the tenuous nature of the agreement, Nobel committee members might be hesitant to award them the prize.

"I'm a little worried about the windfall of that in terms of its impact on regional affairs and the escalating tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia," Harpviken said. "If I were a member of the committee, I certainly would be careful."

Denis Mukwege

A wildcard, this Congolese gynecologist has treated more than 30,000 rape victims, along with his colleagues.

Last year, he won the Sakharov prize, European parliament's top human rights prize — so the Nobel Peace Prize could very well be next.

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