The Festival of Ridvan Begins!

Fountain at the replicated Ridván Garden, near Haifa, Israel, the world centre of the Baha’i Faith.

The Garden of Ridván (literally garden of paradise) or Najibiyyih Garden[1] was a wooded garden in what is now Baghdad‘s Rusafa District, on the banks of the Tigris river. It is the location where Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith, stayed for twelve days from April 21 to May 2, 1863, after the Ottoman Empire exiled him from Baghdad and before commencing his journey to Constantinople. During his stay in this garden, Bahá’u’lláh announced to his followers that he was the messianic figure of He whom God shall make manifest, whose coming had been foretold by the Báb. These events are celebrated annually during the Festival of Ridván.[1]

Canadian Parliament explores Internet, social media, and hate speech

OTTAWA, ONTARIO, Canada — As societies have woken up to the reality that the Internet can be a platform for hate speech that leads to violence, a Canadian Parliament committee is studying this phenomenon and gleaning insights from several faith communities, including the Baha’is.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights recently began its study of online hate speech, bringing together for a hearing on 11 April representatives of several religious and other civil society organizations to discuss ways of combating the issue.

“Young people need access to education that teaches them from the earliest years that humanity is one family,” explained Geoffrey Cameron, representing the Baha’i Community of Canada’s Office of Public Affairs. “They require education and mentorship that goes beyond a simplistic condemnation of hatred or a set of dos and don’ts regarding their online activity.”

The widespread proliferation of social media has given hate speech a larger audience online. This has led to the glorification of violence and hateful actions, several speakers at the committee hearing said. For example, the first of the two Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks was livestreamed on Facebook for 17 minutes, and many violent extremists have been inspired by online discussion forums and social media posts, speakers noted.

Dr. Cameron highlighted the need for educational processes that help young people navigate a polarized and deceptive information environment online: “Youth need help to develop a strong moral framework within which they can make decisions about their online activities, like which content they choose to share and consume, and how they use their powers of expression when communicating with friends and strangers online.”

Geoffrey Cameron of the Canadian Baha’i community’s Office of Public Affairs attended a Canadian Parliament committee hearing about combatting online hate speech. Dr. Cameron was among representatives of nine religious and other civil society organizations discussing the issue.

The significance of education, central to the Baha’i contribution at the hearing, was noted by others, including the committee’s vice chair, Member of Parliament Tracey Ramsey. “I think a core piece of what we’re looking at here is (for) people (to) understand how to identify what is a legitimate piece of media and what is something that is sharing perhaps hateful messages on the Internet and how to distinguish between those things,” Ms. Ramsey said.

The discussion also explored the tension between respecting freedom of expression and regulating hate speech online as well as the prospect of technical solutions to reporting and monitoring hate speech or designating legitimate news sources.

The hearing brought to light a growing awareness that governments and citizens cannot be naive about online technologies and their impacts on society. Questions about the value systems embedded in different online technologies, about privacy, misinformation, and hate speech, and about social isolation and increased risk to vulnerable populations, are among many concerns being explored by a wide range of social actors such as governments, educators, civil society, and individuals.

Amid this complex landscape, helping young people to develop a moral framework to navigate online content and their contributions is an important dimension that should not be overlooked, Dr. Cameron added.

EARTH DAY: Join the Fun!

Come Celebrate With US!

The 49th Annual Earth Day

Monte Sano State Park Picnic Area

Saturday, April 20th, 2019 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

  • Local Music with Microwave Dave,  Musgrove Sessions, and Wolves a Howlin”
  • A Predatory Bird Show and Release
  • A NASA Weather Balloon Release
  • Walk and Listen to Southern Appalachian Herbal Lore.
  • Enjoy Healthy Food & Shop Our Farmer’s Market & Outfitters
  • And learn about the Agencies and Non Profit Groups are doing
  • to Protect Our Natural Environment—

 Sign up for trips, hikes, and workshops

Brought to you by The Flint River Conservation Association, and Monte Sano State Park

(Native Tree Giveaway to the first 200 folks)

Children are especially wanted to learn about the Stewardship of the Earth.

Gate Fee for Families is $10 per van or car load.

49th Earth Day at Monte Sano State Park Schedule

10 a.m. Earth Day begins! Happening all day–
• Musical groups: Microwave Dave, Musgrove Sessions, Wolves a’ howlin
• Hands on activities–Make your own native plant mud bomb–all sorts of activities with Earth Scope Teachers, a paleontologist (fossil guy)–Sliterin, with reptiles and amphibians, Build a Bat House, and MORE!
• LOCAL FARMER’s MARKET!!–Live Animals!
• Many exhibitors–Outfitters, Conservation Groups, Subaru –the only automotive giant certified by The National Wildlife Federation.
• Family Mountain Bike ride to O’Shaughnessy Point—bring bike and helmet.
10:30 Paleontology (Our Local Fossils) with Richard Keyes-with fossils to share11:00 Birds of Prey Show (Amphitheatre) with Alabama Wildlife Center, and after a raptor release into the State Park at the Scenic Overlook.

11–2 Food Trucks Available by Picnic Pavilion

12:00 Slitherin’—Andy Cantrell with native reptiles and amphibians

12:30 Family Bike Ride to O’Shaughnessy Point (with Trailhead Bikes &
Alabama Bike Coalition—Meet At their Table in Outdoor Gear Area)

1:00 Microwave Dave plays the blues and lots more in Amphitheatre. Wolves a Howlin’ and Musgrove Session at Large in Picnic Area

2:00 Appalachian Herbalism in the Pavilion with Ashley Kellow followed by an herb discovery walk—bring camera!

2:30 NASA Weather Balloon Release with SWIRL at the Scenic Overlook

3:00 Event ends but all are invited to stay and enjoy Monte Sano State Park

Cities, technology, and happiness: a look at the future

COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND, United States — Does city life make for happy citizens? What does a prosperous city look like? And what will be the values shaping cities in the future?

“In The Secret of Divine Civilization‘Abdu’l-Baharepeatedly uses ‘happiness’ to make a point about how leaders should develop political, economic, social, and cultural structures in order to advance the spiritual, material, and physical well-being of their citizens, to whom they are responsible,” says Hoda Mahmoudi, the current Holder of the Baha’i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“Our most recent event brought to light how important happiness is to all aspects of human development and offered evidence-based results regarding the many factors that help to promote the happiness of people and society.”

Held on April 4-5, the Baha’i Chair’s two-day conference brought together leading scholars and practitioners from diverse disciplines to better understand the dynamics of urban life. More than half the world’s population lives in urban areas, and the United Nations projects that this proportion will reach more than two-thirds by 2050. Concerned with the implications of this trend, speakers explored how urban infrastructure—from its physical elements such as buildings, highways, or power lines, to intangible ones such as social support, community organizations, or spirituality—affects the future of humanity.

Carrie Exton from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argued that researchers and journalists interested in trying to gauge the prosperity of societies focus too much on gross domestic product, a measure of a country’s economic output, rather than on indicators of happiness and well-being.

One of the topics explored by presenters was whether happiness can be measured, and, if so, how.

Speaking to the conference’s attendees, Dr. Mahmoudi proposed that the concept of happiness is not merely an individualistic aim or a personal goal but a collective enrichment indicated by greater equity, inclusivity, access, health, security, and overall well-being. The subsequent talks looked at various dimensions of this broader conception of happiness.

“Any view of (the relationship between) infrastructure and happiness must contend with inequality in its myriad forms.”

—Carol Ryff, the Director of the Institute on Aging and a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

For instance, Carrie Exton from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argued that researchers and journalists interested in trying to gauge the prosperity of societies focus too much on gross domestic product, a measure of a country’s economic output, rather than on indicators of happiness and well-being. Dr. Exton’s work at the OECD has been to monitor happiness and progress in the 36 member countries as a way of determining societal well-being.

Carol Ryff, the Director of the Institute on Aging and a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, heads a major longitudinal study on health and well-being in which she studies 12,000 people in the United States. In her comments, Dr. Ryff noted the impact of the stark inequalities in American society today, arguing that greater attention needs to be given to this urgent matter. “Any view of (the relationship between) infrastructure and happiness must contend with inequality in its myriad forms. We must attend to the differential access to quality housing, schools, jobs, food, neighborhoods, and green space.”

Houssam Elokda, the Director of Operations and Masterplanning Lead with the Vancouver-based company Happy City, focused on how urban inequalities can be reinforced by a city’s transportation infrastructure. “When driving a car is the only mode of commute—the only option to access all the opportunities (of a city)—then you are telling those who can’t drive, … maybe they’re too poor, they’re too young, too old, or they have a disability, you are telling them that this city is not for them, that they are not meant to access these opportunities,” Mr. Elokda said.

Mr. Elokda also explained: research confirms that commuting by walking or riding a bicycle leads to greater happiness than commuting by car. To make this possible, however, cities need to invest to make these modes of transportation safer and more accessible to all residents, for instance, by building proper sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and other relevant infrastructure.

Dubai is a rapidly developing city in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. Cities face complex and unprecedented questions that have deep implications for humanity’s future. Who determines the direction of cities’ development? What values underpin decision-making processes? Will inequality continue to worsen? How will technology impact happiness and well-being? Both the physical infrastructure of a city, such as buildings and highways, and intangible elements, such as social support, community organizations, or spirituality, can have a bearing on the well-being of humanity.

Evidence was also shown that cities, in part because of their infrastructure, can either restrict or facilitate residents’ participation in decision-making processes in their community. This can happen, for example, through “soft infrastructure,” such as laws, norms, and customs, explained Lok Sang Ho, the Dean of Business at Chu Hai College of Higher Education in Hong Kong. “We need to think about how to improve our institutions and cultural heritage so that they can be inclusive and positive in cultivating the values of love, fortitude, and engagement so that we all accumulate the spiritual capital that unites us,” Dr. Ho said.

Technology’s role in cities also featured prominently in the conference. For example, speakers explored how, as cities become filled with more digital technologies—from wireless Internet to self-driving cars to the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras—it will be important to think critically about the values underlying these technologies and whether they promote or restrict people’s agency. “You can actually encode values in the way you design the technology,” noted Ricardo Alvarez, a researcher with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab. “This is important because when you look at the large-scale systems that we’re putting together, it actually falls on us as society to frame the constraints and limits of a technology.”

The conference helped to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the questions facing cities today. In reflecting on the interconnectedness of the planet, Dr. Mahmoudi later commented that the revolutionary changes affecting society must be seen through the lens of the oneness of humankind. “This vital principal is ‘not only applicable to the individual,’” she said, drawing on a well-known passage by Shoghi Effendi, “but is concerned primarily with the ‘nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family. It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society.’”

Recordings of the talks can be found on the Baha’i Chair’s YouTube channel.

Following tragedy, New Zealand’s Baha’is work for unity, healing

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — In the weeks after a deadly terror attack, the people of New Zealand, still in mourning and shock, are responding with a newfound resolve and dedication to eradicate prejudice and hatred from their society.

A group of young people draw chalk art on a sidewalk in Christchurch. A group of families involved in Baha’i community building activities in a neighborhood began the street art activity to inspire hope following the 15 March terror attacks.

Public expressions of solidarity—including a nationally-broadcast memorial gathering in Christchurch’s Hagley Park—highlight the spiritual qualities of the people, such as unity, tolerance, and kindness.

Amid the country’s outpouring of both grief and support for the 50 victims killed and 50 injured, the Baha’i community has joined its fellow citizens in efforts to promote mutual respect and social harmony. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of New Zealand released a public statement condemning the attacks, expressing its profound sorrow, and conveying its hope that the tragedy will catalyze efforts to work toward peace, unity, and social inclusion. The National Assembly also encouraged the Baha’is “not to despair, but work steadily and show love to all,” in a letter dated 17 March.

“We wanted to encourage the Baha’i community, and indeed the people of Aotearoa New Zealand, to see through their deep shock to glimmerings of hope and to rally their energies towards drawing upon sources of spiritual strength to work towards a more united country where such a terrible act could never again occur,” explained Suzanne Mahon, the Secretary of the National Assembly.

This photo shows some of the hopeful and loving messages in the street art.

In Christchurch, some 20 individuals involved in Baha’i community-building activities in a neighborhood where some of the victims lived met the day after the attacks to consult on how to offer meaningful support. First, they decided to visit their neighboring families who had been struck by the tragedy to offer condolences and support. Also, adults, youth, and children in the neighborhood collectively initiated a street art project, writing hopeful and loving messages on sidewalks, using chalk. Their creative expression quickly caught on as others throughout the city were inspired to contribute to the sidewalk art. Messages included, “We are flowers of one garden” and statements about the importance of unity.

“This simple action that children, youth, and adults were able to take part in was an expression of love and solidarity and provided a wide range of people an outlet to express themselves in a meaningful way,” added Vahid Qualls, who assists with the neighborhood’s activities and is a member of the National Assembly.

Two days after the attack, the local Baha’i community of Christchurch dedicated its Sunday morning devotional gathering to those lost in the tragedy, their families, and communities.

The Baha’i community’s annual Race Unity Speech Awards, co-organized with the national police and other partners since 2001, will come at a crucial time this year. “We knew before that racial and religious prejudice can lead to hate and tragic violence, and that the work of promoting unity is serious and vital. But never before has it seemed so urgent,” said Aidan MacLeod, one of the event organizers.

Students perform a haka, a dance traditional to the Maori people of New Zealand, during the 2017 Race Unity Speech Awards.

“People in New Zealand are now talking frankly about racial prejudice and the need for unity. People are saying that we have been too complacent. There’s a desire for both reflection and decisive action,” Mr. MacLeod added.

The annual event includes a special program in which high school students give speeches about race unity. This year, there will also be two conferences for youth throughout the country to discuss their efforts to work toward a more just and peaceful society.

The New Zealand Baha’i community co-organizes a conference for youth alongside its annual Race Unity Speech Awards. Here, participants in last year’s conference consult during a small group session. (Credit: Tom Mackintosh)

Among many other developments, 16 religious leaders in New Zealand, including a Baha’i representative, sent a message of love and support to the Muslim community on Friday.

“Under such an onslaught we religious leaders are keenly aware of our need … to draw upon the deepest resources of our diverse spiritualities and traditions. In this, the targeted Muslim people have themselves given noble and generous examples,” the religious representatives wrote.

Baha’is in New Zealand are also seeing at this time the power of devotional gatherings. The National Assembly encouraged the Baha’is to see devotional gatherings as “sources of spiritual strength over the coming weeks and months for thousands of New Zealanders.” Devotional gatherings offer a space to make the profound connection between prayer and selfless deeds that promote the betterment of humanity.

A frank look at the news and its social impact

A roundtable discussion held at the Center of University Studies associated with the King Juan Carlos University in Madrid on 15 March focused on the role of media in fostering unity in society.

MADRID — A group of prominent Spanish journalists met recently to grapple with the news media’s impact on social cohesion and the rise of radicalization. The setting was a roundtable discussion on 15 March, organized by Spain’s Baha’i Office of Public Affairs at the King Juan Carlos University Center for University Studies.

“The function of journalism is to make objective information known to the public for the common good,” argued Rafael Fraguas, co-founder of the major daily newspaper El Pais. “Today information is conflated with opinion. The compromising of objectivity—the highest form of honesty—in the news media is leading to ignorance, and it is clear today where ignorance is taking society.”

The event involved a roundtable discussion among five individuals who work with some of Spain’s major media organizations: Mr. Fraguas; Jesús Bastante, the editor in chief of the online publication Religión Digital; Beatriz de Vincete de Castro, a lawyer and media personality; Francisco Castañón, director of the online magazine Entreletras; and Juana Pérez, an editor with the international news agency Pressenza. The discussion took place before an audience of some forty students and faculty.

Participants explored the conflicting forces that are shaping news coverage today. Immediacy and cutbacks in funding have restrained the ability of journalists to pursue in-depth analyses. These same forces incentivize sensationalized and superficial stories that often seek to appeal to emotions of anger and mistrust. Yet, many journalists are deeply aware of these trends and want to pursue more profound stories that explore the complexities of a situation affecting society and to help build understanding.

“In society, there are processes of disintegration and hopelessness that attract large audiences and processes of integration that instill hope but are not always covered. Therefore, journalists have to choose between putting on a show and making judgements, and informing in a trustworthy manner that fosters hope,” Ms. Pérez explained in the discussion.

Layla Sant from the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs explained the aims of the event. “Media has an impact on how society sees and perceives reality,” she said. “This dialogue is an early and necessary step in building conversation in our society about the values and framework that can enable the media to fulfill its role and responsibility for the betterment of society.”

The roundtable emerged from a seminar co-organized by the Baha’i communityin October on the prevention of violent radicalization. “We found an important theme to explore further is the place of the news media in the positive and negative forces playing out in society today,” said Dunia Donaires, also of the Office of Public Affairs. “So we decided to organize a series of discussions for journalists to analyze elements that initiate radicalization, such as polarizing and conflictual coverage, and explore how the media might counter these.”

The Office of Public Affairs is planning future roundtables. It aspires to give momentum to a growing conversation in the country about the values and responsibilities of the media and ultimately to lead to further actions that can foster social harmony. The Office is also working with the Autonomous University of Madrid to teach a three-day summer school course about the prevention of violent radicalization.This video by (in Spanish) summarizes the main points from the roundtable discussion held on 15 March at the Center of University Studies.

New year heralds second bicentenary period

BAHA’I WORLD CENTRE — Sunset on March 21 marked the start of a new Bahá’í year. Naw-Ruz, celebrated around the world, heralded an eagerly anticipated second historic bicentenary for the Bahá’í Faith

October 2019 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the forerunner and herald of the Bahá’í Faith, the Báb, whose dramatic ministry paved the way for the appearance of Baha’u’llah. On 29 and 30 October, Bahá’ís, together with their neighbors, families, and friends, will commemorate the births of these Twin Luminaries.

[NOTE: Follow to learn of events in Huntsville to mark this once-in-a-lifetime anniversary.]

In the coming months, a new website will be launched as part of the family of sites to honor this bicentenary. The site, like the one launched a month before the first bicentenary in 2017, will unfold in stages, eventually including a film specially commissioned for the occasion as well as regular updates from celebrations around the Bahá’í world.

The Shrine of the Báb sitting center of the Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa, Israel. Click here to watch an aerial fly over of the Shrine.

In preparation for the coming bicentenary, a collection of 43 images associated with the life and mission of the Báb has been published online for the first time. Five aerial videos of the Shrine of the Báb and its vicinity were also published online. The collection can be found on the Baha’i Media Bank. The photos were added to sections about the Báb and His sacred Shrine. Also, three graphics for the coming bicentenary were added to a section about Baha’i Holy Day celebrations.