BRUSSELS — At a recent European Parliament panel discussion, the Brussels office of the Baha’i International Community (BIC) led an exploration of how institutions and civil society actors can develop language that at once respects diversity and fosters shared identity. This discussion comes at a time when questions of identity and belonging occupy a central place in contemporary discourses across Europe.
Ms. Ward expressed that she welcomed this conversation, giving an opportunity to frame these issues from a new perspective, and remarked on the power of language as a tool for either fostering cohesion or inciting division.
“We should value diversity as a unifying factor,” said Ms. Rafaela, “but how do we address this through language? We need to create language that is respectful towards people rather than laying blame on others. How can a language be developed that fosters a strong sense of loyalty to all of humanity?”
In a paper prepared for the discussion and distributed to participants at the gathering, the BIC office highlighted that much of the thinking about language has been directed towards celebrating diversity and promoting peaceful coexistence. Language reflects people’s attitudes toward one another and shapes their thoughts. The BIC suggests that, while it is essential to have language that respects differences, overemphasizing this can reinforce the notions of “us and them” that must be overcome.
The panel, therefore, focused on how institutions and social actors can address the root of the issue: that although celebrating diversity and advocating co-existence represent a step forward, a shared identity is needed to chart a path towards harmonious societies.
Pascal Jossi, a representative of an agency that assists firms and institutions to create inclusive organizational cultures, spoke about how the language used to describe differences among people can lead to a sense of othering. “It’s not about finding the best category to place someone in,” he said “but building a new reality in which everybody feels welcome.”
Mr. Jossi shared his experience as someone of Cameroonian descent born in Belgium and raised in Luxemburg, who in each of these places found himself referred to in terms that separated him from the majority. “This kind of tension will remain,” he said, “until we remodel our interactions. I don’t think adding or removing specific words from our vocabulary will alone make language a catalyst for creating an inclusive society; we have to examine what attitudes and assumptions underlie the way we speak to one another so that we can begin engaging in a way that builds trust and unity.”
“We are learning to speak in ways that enable us to establish interdependent and cooperative relationships,” said Mathieu Marie-Eugenie, describing his experience facilitating workshops with youth in the Paris area that promote coexistence and cooperation through poetry and artistic expression. “In an environment of trust and kindness, we are able to tell ourselves ‘I am a person who belongs within humanity,’ or in poetic language, ‘I am a drop, and I am a part of the ocean.’”
“Beyond our individual identities,” said Rachel Bayani, representative of the BIC, in her remarks at the forum, “we need to conceive of an overarching, shared identity, one which can unite, which is based on the understanding that humanity is one and that all the peoples of the world are part of the same human family. This is essential if the splintering of humanity into opposing groups is to give way to greater degrees of unity, and if the rich manifestations of diversity are to be constructively woven into the fabric of social life.”
BIC GENEVA — Iranian authorities are preventing Baha’is across the country from obtaining national identification cards, while a series of home raids, confiscations, arrests, and attacks on properties have unjustly targeted Baha’is. These developments are part of a surge in persecution against the Baha’i community in Iran.
Members of several religious minorities in the country face restrictions in applying for a new national identification card, removing a previous facility that allowed the option “other” to be selected instead of one of four recognized religions—Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism. The decision to remove that option now prevents Baha’is from obtaining their identification cards, depriving them of basic civil services such as applying for a loan, cashing a check, or buying property.
“Despite continuous claims by Iranian officials inside the country and in UN fora that Baha’is have citizenship rights,” says Diane Ala’i, Representative of the Baha’i International Community (BIC) in Geneva, “the authorities are institutionalizing yet another mechanism which aims to destroy the Baha’i community as a viable entity; thereby extending a four-decade-long and relentless campaign of persecution against Baha’is across virtually every dimension of life—the cultural, social, educational and economic. Even so, the Baha’is of Iran continue to strive to live in accordance with the teachings of their Faith, which uphold truthfulness as ‘the foundation of all human virtues.’ How could Baha’is who apply for their national identification cards, for public sector jobs, or to enroll in a universities be punished simply for being truthful?”
In another troubling development, a court has ruled that all properties belonging to Baha’is in the village of Ivel—some of which they have owned since the mid-19th Century—be confiscated on the basis that Baha’is have “a perverse ideology” and therefore have no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property. There have been other attacks on Baha’i properties and confiscations of their possessions in the past three months, including one case where a Baha’i home was entirely destroyed.
Moreover, dozens of Baha’is have been arrested, and dozens more have received religiously motivated prison sentences. These sentences amount to a combined prison time of nearly a century, with some individuals sentenced to over ten years of incarceration.
“The Baha’i International Community is alarmed by the recent wave of persecution against the Baha’i community in Iran and calls upon the international community to shine a spotlight on these issues, which represent a major further deterioration”, says Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the BIC.
BAHA’I WORLD CENTRE — Last Monday, the mayor of Akka, Shimon Lankri, and dignitaries representing the city’s religious communities and other local organizations gathered to honor ‘Abdu’l-Baha at a tree-planting ceremony coinciding with the start of the construction of His Shrine.
“For Baha’is, diversity is beauty,” Mr. Lankri said in his remarks at the ceremony. “Like the flowers and plants of a garden, their worldview is that diversity creates beauty. I think this worldview is true, and we embrace it here.”
The ceremony, held on the site of the Shrine, was attended by around 50 guests including leaders of the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities, officials of local government, and academics from educational institutions in the area. David Rutstein, Secretary-General of the Baha’i International Community, and Hossein Amanat, architect of the Shrine, were among several representatives of the Baha’i community who were also present.
After a viewing of the design concept for the Shrine and a recitation of prayers revealed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Mr. Lankri and Dr. Rutstein gave brief remarks before carrying an olive tree together to a chosen location. Guests helped plant the tree in a spot in the garden where it will be able to grow for years to come.
“The spirit of ‘Abdu’l-Baha shines through a hundred years later,” says Dr. Rutstein. “Seeing the many segments of Akka’s population coming together in their happiness that ‘Abdu’l-Baha is returning to their city—this calls to mind how He worked to create unity here.”
While these developments occurred, construction work began with a thorough examination of the site’s ground composition and drainage, involving exploratory drilling at 29 points.
Next, to allow work with heavy machinery to progress on the soft soil even in damp winter conditions, a 50 centimeter platform of compacted stone was laid across the whole circular area—170 meters in diameter—that will enclose the Shrine and surrounding landscaping. Concrete piles have been driven 15 meters deep, on which the foundation of the central structure is now being built.
At the same time, preparations have begun for the next stages of the project: detailed architectural and landscaping plans to realize the design concept are being drawn up, and a search for suitable sources of building materials is well under way.
Collaboration with local authorities has been essential, whether in obtaining the necessary permits, fostering understanding of the project among neighboring residents, or working with the Israel Antiquities Authority to ensure that the rich history of the area is respected and preserved.
Throughout the design process, care has been taken to account for environmental factors. The Ridvan garden, located on a low-lying plain by the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, is protected by walls and earthworks that were built several years ago to help secure the gardens against flooding. The Shrine will be built on a gently sloping berm that will raise the central structure several meters to account for rising sea levels.
‘Abdu’l-Baha was a resident of Akka for four decades. He arrived as a prisoner and an exile alongside His Father, Baha’u’llah. Despite the many tragedies and adversities He suffered there, He made Akka his home and dedicated Himself to serving the people of the city, especially its poor. In time, He came to be known and revered throughout the region.
He spent the last years of His life in Haifa, and upon His passing was interred there within the Shrine of the Bab. When His earthly remains are transferred to the permanent Shrine, Akka will witness the return of a figure Who left an indelible mark on that city.
The News Service will continue to cover the developments of this momentous endeavor through articles and brief notices, which will be collected in a new section of the website.
To watch a video and listen to podcasts, read the story online, or view more photos, visit news.bahai.org.
BAHA’I WORLD CENTRE, 31 December 2019, (BWNS) — The Baha’i World News Service, reflecting on 2019, provides a brief overview of stories in the past year about developments in the global Baha’i community and a glimpse of the extraordinary worldwide celebrations that took place in honor of the second historic bicentenary.
200th anniversary of the birth of the Bab
October 2019 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Báb, as the forerunner and herald of the Baha’i Faith, whose dramatic ministry paved the way for the appearance of Baha’u’llah. The bicentenary was celebrated worldwide at every level, from the grassroots to the international.
In villages and neighborhoods across the globe, bicentenary preparations began months in advance, prompting an unprecedented intensification of community building activities and an outpouring of artistic works to mark the occasion, reflect on its significance, and recall the momentous life of the Bab. In the lead-up to the anniversary, the News Service reported on these preparations and celebrations in each continent: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australasia, and Europe. Based on what had been learned in 2017, the celebrations were much more broadly based on this occasion at the grassroots of society.
Notable events also took place at the national level. In the United Kingdom, the British Library launched a remarkable exhibition displaying examples of the Faith’s original texts and hosted an acclaimed one-man play for the occasion; in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States members of Parliament commemorated the bicentenary, acknowledging the Baha’i community’s contributions to the life of society; and in India, the country’s Baha’i community held a special reception for President Ram Nath Kovind.
At the Baha’i World Centre, President of Israel Reuven Rivlin visited the Shrine of the Bab to honor the bicentenary. On another occasion, a reception was held for community leaders, and the terraces on Mount Carmel as well as the Shrine of the Bab were opened to thousands of visitors for a two-night special program.
A film commissioned for the bicentenary, Dawn of the Light, was screened in countless locations around the world. The film follows the personal search for truth and meaning undertaken by people from different parts of the world.
Glimpses of celebrations were captured on the international website Bicentenary.Bahai.org, where a letter from the Universal House of Justice written for the occasion is also available.
The Shrine will be built in the vicinity of the Ridvan Garden in Akka, a holy place visited on Baha’i pilgrimage—a spiritual journey to the Holy Land taken by thousands of people from around the world each year.
Baha’i Houses of Worship
The News Service covered a variety of stories this past year on what is being learned about the social impact of Baha’i Temples in communities around the world and on advancements in the construction of new Houses of Worship in Kenya, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu.
A two-part podcast (Part one | Part two) featured interviews with participants of a unique gathering that brought together representatives from 10 countries to explore insights emerging about these structures. In another podcast, representatives from a community in Uganda, where a Temple has stood for over 50 years, explored how collective prayer is influencing society at large.
The past year saw the publication of new selections from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as well as the launch of new websites—the Baha’i World publication and the News Service in French and Spanish.
A new volume of Baha’u’llah’s mystical Writings was made available online and in print in February, including a translation of one of His most renowned poetic works, Rashh-i-‘Ama, or The Clouds of the Realms Above. In May, 67 selections from ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Writings were published for the first time on the Baha’i Reference Library. In August, several collections of images on the Baha’i Media Bank were updated.
And, the five-member board of directors of the newly established Baha’i International Development Organization convened its first meeting in January to consult on its aims and work. The emergence of this new institution at the international level portends significant advances in this area of endeavor in the years to come.
Participation in the discourses of society
Efforts of the Baha’i community to contribute to the betterment of society at the level of thought continued to be a prominent theme covered by the News Service in 2019.
National communities worldwide have participated in many forums where contemporary issues of concern to their societies are being considered by government and civil society actors. Themes explored in these communities have included the role of religion in promoting constructive social change, race unity, and issues concerning social and economic development.
In Spain, the Baha’i community hosted prominent journalists in a roundtable discussion on news media’s impact on social cohesion and the rise of radicalization. In Canada, at a Parliament Committee hearing about combatting online hate speech, representatives of the Bahá’í community highlighted the importance of cultivating a strong moral framework to understand and analyze online media. In Italy and Kiribati, Baha’i communities expressed to their countries’ presidents a shared hope for a unified society. A podcast interview with representatives of Australia’s Baha’i community highlighted the power of consultation to build unity of thought and action in society. In the United States, the Baha’i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, College Park, organized several conferences on prevalent issues, including the future of cities and the inseparable relationship between the advancement of women and the creation of prosperous and peaceful societies.
The News Service also reported on the importance of the participation of youth in social discourses. Young people explored critical issues such as race unity in New Zealand, the environment in the Netherlands, and the younger generation’s distinctive role in contributing to social transformation in Germany.
Persecution of the Baha’is in Iran and Yemen
Against the backdrop of these advances worldwide, the persecution of the Baha’i communities in Iran and Yemen continued.
Earlier this month, the United Nations condemned Iran’s ongoing human rights violations, as the country’s Baha’i community continues to suffer under the weight of state-sponsored systematic persecution. During the celebrations of the bicentenary of the birth of the Bab, Iranian authorities raided gatherings in homes, arrested Baha’is, and sealed off business that were closed in observance of the Holy Days. Over the course of the year, Baha’is in Iran have experienced ongoing persecution, including revolving arrests and home raids; multiple court cases, in some instances yielding sentences of up to 10 years; and continued expulsion of students from university on the basis of their Faith. Many businesses owned by Baha’is remain sealed by order of local authorities.
In Yemen, six Baha’is have remained in prison in Sana’a, one of whom, Hamed bin Haydara, is under a sentence of death. The six have been detained between two-and-half and six years each. During the appeals hearings for Mr. Haydara, the prosecution had repeatedly pressured the court to not only uphold the verdict to execute him but also to deport all Baha’is and ban their entry into the country. In September, the U.N. Human Rights Council condemned the Houthi persecution of the Baha’is.
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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A century ago yesterday, ‘Abdu’l-Baha penned what has come to be known as the First Tablet to The Hague, an exploration of the profound societal changes required for the attainment of international peace. Marking this occasion, the Baha’i community of the Netherlands on Tuesday night held a special commemorative event at its National Center in The Hague.
Attendees—among them religious leaders—discussed themes from the Tablets to The Hague. “Peace is at the heart of humanity and ‘Abdu’l-Baha in His letter is helping us see how we can reach it,” explained Marga Martens, a representative of the Netherlands’ Baha’i community. “Peace is inevitable, but we have to work hard to reach that state in the world.”
Addressing the Executive Committee of the Central Organization for a Durable Peace in The Hague, ‘Abdu’l-Baha writes in the Tablet’s opening lines, “Your intention deserves a thousand praises, because you are serving the world of humanity, and this is conducive to the happiness and welfare of all.”
In the tablet, ‘Abdu’l-Baha explains that peace would require a transformation in human consciousness and a commitment to fundamental spiritual principles enunciated by Baha’u’llah, such as the abolition of all forms of prejudice, the harmony of science and religion, and the equality of women and men, among others.
While an English translation of the first half of the tablet was published in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1978, the complete translation was prepared in May this year and presented on the Baha’i Reference Library.
A photographic chronology recently published on a website by Jelle and Adib de Vries in the Netherlands sheds light on events surrounding ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablets to The Hague. The website describes how two Baha’is in Iran, Ahmad Yazdani and ‘Ali-Muhammad Ibn-i-Asdaq, wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1915 about the Central Organization for a Durable Peace. He encouraged them to introduce the Organization to the Baha’i teachings on peace. The Organization wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1916, but wartime communications into the Holy Land were blocked.
The Organization’s letter reached ‘Abdu’l-Baha in Haifa three years later, in the aftermath of World War I. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá responded immediately, sending Mr. Yazdani and Mr. Ibn-i-Asdaq to deliver His message in person. According to Dr. de Vries’ research, they arrived in The Hague in May 1920 only to find that the Central Organization for a Durable Peace had virtually dissolved.
Nevertheless, the Organization replied to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s message, prompting Him to write what is known as the Second Tablet to The Hague. In it, He asserts that “our desire for peace is not derived merely from the intellect: It is a matter of religious belief and one of the eternal foundations of the Faith of God.”
The goal of world peace is central to Baha’i belief. In 1867 and 1868, Baha’u’llah addressed an extraordinary series of tablets to the kings and rulers of the world, urging them to set aside their differences, to establish a system of collective security and move toward disarmament, to champion the cause of justice, to show the utmost care and consideration for the well-being and rights of the poor, and to work toward a lasting peace.
From 1911 to 1913, ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke extensively during His tour of Europe and North America about the imperative of peace and warned that Europe was on the brink of war.
In a letter dated 28 November 1931, Shoghi Effendi states that the oneness of humanity “calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarization of the whole civilized world—a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life ….”
The Universal House of Justice in October 1985 penned a significant message on the subject of world peace, known as The Promise of World Peace. In January of this year, the House of Justice also released a message addressing contemporary challenges facing humanity, in which it states that “the establishment of peace is a duty to which the entire human race is called.” The House of Justice further states that although “world unity is possible—nay, inevitable—it ultimately cannot be achieved without unreserved acceptance of the oneness of humankind.”
“Unity, in its Bahá’í expression, contains the essential concept of diversity, distinguishing it from uniformity,” the House of Justice writes. “It is through love for all people, and by subordinating lesser loyalties to the best interests of humankind, that the unity of the world can be realized and the infinite expressions of human diversity find their highest fulfilment.”
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Recent bicentenary commemorations for societal leaders were celebratory occasions as well as moments of reflection on the challenges of our time.
In some communities, leaders were moved to express their appreciation of the Baha’i community’s contributions to society during this special period. For example in Wellington, New Zealand, Member of Parliament Priyanca Radhakrishnan hosted a bicentenary celebration in the country’s Parliament Buildings. “I can see that the work that you do in Aotearoa is rooted in the values and beliefs of the Faith,” MP Radhakrishnan said, “for example inculcating values of love, unity, and kindness amongst children, encouraging young people to be constructive agents of change, and contributing to discussions across New Zealand on some of the challenges that face us as a nation.”
A conference organized last month in Kyiv, Ukraine, brought together religious scholars, representatives of different Faith communities, students, and others to explore how the common underlying values of religion can contribute to societal progress.
Organized by Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences, the Ukrainian Association of Religious Studies, and the country’s Baha’i community, the gathering included a session on the Bab’s life and teachings and highlighted the life of one of His earliest followers—Tahirih. Tahirih is an iconic figure in the cause of women’s advancement. In 19th century Iran, she called for a profound transformation in society’s conception of women and advocated change in the habits and attitudes of society.
Tahirih’s courage and heroism were also the subject of a documentary shown at a bicentenary celebration for dignitaries, representatives of civil society, journalists, and others in Tunis, Tunisia. The screening, held at L’Agora cinema, led to a vibrant discussion on the equality of women and men.
In Sydney, Australia, to honor the bicentenary, the Baha’i community organized a conference on social cohesion and inclusion. “The bicentenary period is an opportunity to reflect on Baha’i teachings related to knowledge, compassion, and justice,” explained Ida Walker, of the country’s Baha’i Office of External Affairs. “This conference provided a space to learn from the experiences of one another and build on the efforts of many individuals and organizations to overcome prejudice and injustice and foster inclusion in society.”
At national gatherings in numerous countries, participants discussed the spirit of renewal brought by the Bab, as the Herald of Baha’u’llah, and the relevance of the Baha’i teachings in addressing the challenges of their societies. Attendees of many celebrations watched Dawn of the Light, which tells the story of eight people as they search for truth and meaning. They describe how their discovery of the Baha’i teachings brought hope and a way forward in addressing the social ills of our time. At a commemoration in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, the film resonated with a large audience, many of whom were visibly touched by its message.
Other national governments also honored the historic period with special receptions. The Australian Parliament marked the anniversary during a session of its House of Representativesas well as an event last month in the distinguished setting of the Senate Alcove of Parliament House. The United Kingdom Parliament also held a celebration for the bicentenary, hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group in Portcullis House. Malaysia’s minister for national unity and social well-being, Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy, recognized the Baha’i community’s contributions to the country at a bicentenary celebration.
And at a reception in Madrid, Spain, held for national leaders, Ana Gallego, a director general of the country’s ministry of justice, explained that “the mission of the Bab aimed to elevate the status of women, promote universal education and the harmony of science and religion, and overcome prejudice, corruption, and fanaticism at a time and place where these ideas were revolutionary.” South Africa’s Baha’i community held a bicentenary celebration for national dignitaries.
In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where Baha’u’llah spent two years of His life, a commemoration focused on the history of the Faith in the region. Speaking about the significance of the bicentenary and the Twin Birthdays, a local leader, Sheikh ‘Abdu’l-Rahman Al-Naqshbandi, described the period of Baha’u’llah’s two-year stay in and around the mountains of Sulaymaniyyih more than a century and a half ago. The Figure of Baha’u’llah and the stories of His time there have stayed with the local population, Sheikh Al-Naqshbandi said. “Much was said and continues to be said about (Baha’u’llah); that He had a mission, knew God, and came to Hawraman.”