In natural disasters, capacities of local communities vital

Opening of the High-level Segment of the Economic and Social Council and the Ministerial Segment of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development

BIC NEW YORK — With a rising risk of natural disasters around the world, the relationship between local capacity and preparedness and international and national assistance was examined as part of a dynamic discussion hosted by the Baha’i International Community (BIC).

“As we move from the global level to the regional, national, local, and community, the silos that sometimes divide us start to dissipate. We see at the community level, the community leader is also a neighbor, also a teacher. Everyone wears so many hats,” said Daniel Perell, a BIC representative. “That level of common enterprise that is so common at the neighborhood level needs to rise up to the international level.”

International response to natural disasters is vital to bringing to stricken areas urgent humanitarian relief, material resources, and knowledge. But alongside aid, the role of local capacity and preparedness is a vital area of learning, speakers noted. For the Baha’i community, the power of unity and collective enterprise as well as the importance of certain capacities at the local level has been demonstrated in a number of cases natural disaster recovery in recent years.

Dozens of participants, representing a diversity of non-governmental organizations with experience in natural disaster response and recovery, joined the discussion held on Friday alongside the United Nations’ High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. The event was co-organized by the BIC, the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction. Mami Mizutori, the Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, also attended and spoke.SLIDESHOW 
4 imagesThe Baha’i International Community’s delegation to the United Nations High Level Political Forum

The Forum, which began on 9 July and continues through Thursday, is an annual gathering for U.N. member states and NGOs to reflect on progress in the Sustainable Development Goals, 17 global targets that the international community aims to reach by 2030Friday’s panel was one of three organized by the BIC, focusing on different target areas of the Development Goals. The other two panels, held on Thursday, focused on how education can empower youth to contribute to the progress of their societies and conceptualizing peace not merely as an absence of conflict but as a condition of collective thriving.

In its statement to the Forum, the BIC commended the international community’s consensus around the Sustainable Development Goals, but cautioned that “translating those aspirations into lived reality will require a tremendous expansion of Agenda 2030’s ‘spirit of strengthened global solidarity’. Crucial in this regard will be ensuring that recognition of the interconnected nature of humanity is a principal consideration in both policy-making and action.”

Friday’s disaster response panel showed the diversity of organizations that are thinking about the critical role of local communities. Central to this is the relationship between national and international policy and local capacity and ability to organize. Several speakers discussed the importance of global disaster response and recovery, but noted that national and international policies need to be made in concert with local communities and informed by their own practices.SLIDESHOW 
4 imagesWilly Missak, who works with Oxfam in Vanuatu, shares his country’s experience in connecting policymaking to community practices, explaining that meaningful policies come when the government and civil society organizations work together.

Willy Missak, who works with Oxfam in Vanuatu, shared his country’s experience in connecting policy-making to community practices, explaining that effective policies come when the government and civil society organizations work together. Transformation, he noted, comes from unified action at the grassroots, but this needs to be coordinated with the national level.

Kathryn Adams, executive director of Haiti-based LIDÈ, spoke about her organization’s efforts to help locals develop expertise in medical, psychological, legal, and other skills necessary to disaster response. “We don’t do enough in disaster response to embed resilience. By that I mean finding ways to turn disaster response into an opportunity to empower people to build tools for future use,” Dr. Adams explained.

The Baha’i community’s experience indicates that people can exhibit remarkable resilience, selflessness, resourcefulness, and creativity during times of disaster. In its 2016 statement, Rising Together: Building the Capacity to Recover from Within, the Baha’i International Community wrote that communities “that have been especially effective in responding have – prior to the disaster – been consciously working to create distinctive and beneficial patterns of collective life.” In short, localities where the fabric of community life is strong are more resilient and better equipped to respond to disasters.

In Spain, a dynamic conversation aims to prevent radicalization

A university course in Madrid, co-organized by Spain’s Baha’i community, brought together emerging and leading perspectives from academics, journalists, and government and military officials who are grappling with violent radicalization. (Credit: Sebastian Dubiel)

TRES CANTOS, Spain — In Spain, academics, journalists, and government and military officials are grappling with violent radicalization, attempting to understand its root causes and to prevent its proliferation. A recent university course co-organized by the country’s Baha’i community brought to light some of the emerging and leading thoughts from a variety of perspectives.

“The purpose of this course is to continue reflecting on the nature of radicalization and ways of addressing it, paying special attention to religion’s impact in society,” said Leila Sant, with the Spanish Baha’i community’s Office of Public Affairs. “In addition, the course tries to offer different perspectives on this phenomenon of radicalization in an effort to give a complete, unfragmented picture.”

The class was offered through a university in Madrid (UAM) from 1 to 3 July. More than 20 specialists in various fields were involved in offering the course, which was organized around about a dozen roundtable discussions. Organized in collaboration with UAM Professor Ricardo Garcia, the course not only allowed students to benefit from the insights being shared, but also opened a dynamic space for contributors to deepen their own understanding of the complexity of violent radicalization.

For several years the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs has been engaged in a discourse on the role of religion in society, which led to a focus on the causes of violent radicalization. The Baha’i writings teach that true religion has a central role in overcoming religious fanaticism, that the power latent in religion can transform anger and hatred into love and respect for the inherent dignity of others. The university course was a natural outcome of this long-term effort, Ms. Sant explained. The Office has recently organized related spaces, such as a day-long seminar on the same theme as well as a roundtable discussion with journalists about the social impact of news.

The relationship between religion and radicalization featured prominently in the course. Prof. Garcia noted that religion can be regarded as both the cause and the solution of radicalization; combatting religious extremism requires understanding the logic of religion, giving due regard to its influence on the lives of many people, and learning to work with religious communities to build social harmony.

The course went beyond simplistic ideas about radicalization to explore its many dimensions.

“It is positive for society to be open to new ideas that are introduced through nonviolence, to listen to perspectives other than your own. That is healthy,” Ms. Sant explained in the course’s opening session. “However radicalization is characterized by seeing a group of people as other than your own, seeing things as black and white, seeing very absolute ideas. This can take you eventually toward othering and violence.”

Course speakers also explored how partisan politics push people to have an us-and-them mentality about supporters of parties other than their own. In a saturated media environment that favors spectacle, only language that is divisive and extreme is heard, speakers explained.

“It is very important not to trivialize politics and to remember that in essence all human beings are equal in dignity,” noted Esteban Ibarra, the president of the Movement Against Intolerance.

Another theme that emerged was the importance of all people having an opportunity to benefit from and contribute to the progress of society. This is particularly vital for newcomers to the country. Speakers, including representatives of the national police and military, explained that social integration is promoted through mentorship and networks such as religious communities.

“In spite of the fact that in Spain there are equal opportunities, some groups find themselves in more disadvantaged social positions,” said Oscar Prieto, a professor from the University of Girona who has pioneered mentorship programs to help young people at risk of social exclusion. “It is because of the lack of people who support them and who act as informal mentors to solve common difficulties in daily life that some people have less possibilities of social advancement.”

Local and national media covered the course widely, as it featured prominent speakers such as the president of the country’s constitutional court, a leader in the country’s civil guard, and leading journalists. The organizers plan to publish a book with the discussions featured in the course and organize future courses through the university.

As momentous bicentenary approaches, Baha’i communities prepare

LANGENHAIN, Germany — After prayers in the Baha’i House of Worship, as sunlight passes through the dome’s diamond-shaped windows, a group walks down a geranium-lined path to the National Baha’i Center of Germany. Inside are sacred items related to the life of the Bab, the Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i Faith. The relics are part of an exhibition created by Germany’s Baha’i community to commemorate the upcoming bicentenary of the Bab’s birth.

In 1844, the Bab brought a new Revelation to humanity, setting in motion a spiritual movement that rapidly spread across what was then Persia. Stories of the Bab’s Cause and the heroism of those who followed it spread to the East and the West. His life and teachings captured the imaginations of numerous Western writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The 200th anniversary of the Bab’s birth occurs on 29 October, and around the world people are preparing for the momentous occasion. The new exhibition in Germany is just one example. The exhibit, held from 21 April to 2 May, displayed three original items from the German Baha’i community’s archives, each related to the life of the Bab: a lock of His hair, some fragments of His clothes, and a piece of the wall of the castle of Mah-Ku, where He was imprisoned for nine months. The exhibit also includes original items related to the life of Baha’u’llah, as well as a passage written by the Bab about Baha’u’llah and another by Baha’u’llah about the Bab. Many hundreds of people from around the country attended the exhibit, and many expressed profound emotions at being able to see items so closely connected to the lives of those two Sacred Figures.

“The theme here was the Word of God and the remarkable connection between the Twin Manifestations of God,” explained Saba Khabirpour, the Secretary of Germany’s National Spiritual Assembly.

Germany’s Baha’is have undertaken numerous other steps to prepare. In nearby Gauangelloch, a village of 2,300, organizers of a spiritual education program for children and youth have been holding regular service projects, involving about 80 people, in honor of the Twin Bicentenaries. Efforts began in 2017 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, and they are continuing throughout the period linking that historic anniversary with the forthcoming bicentenary.

“Both celebrations are so intricately linked to the whole development of the community,” said Katrin, a Baha’i living in Gauangelloch. “It’s not just two big events that are separated by two years, but really they’re part of an ongoing process of community building.”

Amid the mounting joy and excitement, the bicentenary has especially animated young people, who are finding inspiration in the lives of the heroes and heroines of the Faith from the time of the Bab—individuals who courageously faced the dark forces of blind imitation, superstition, prejudice, and corruption. Many of them were youth and young adults, like the Bab Himself.

In February, a three-day youth conference brought together some 500 young people from around the country. They shared the stories of those early heroes—such as Tahirih and Badi. Though separated by time, participants could see the profound connection between the heroism of the Bab and His followers and the selfless and courageous service of so many young people working for unity today.

“The oneness of humanity was not a utopia or a dream for me anymore,” said one of the participants, reflecting on the impact of the conference. “The vision of Baha’u’llah became much more realistic to me to see how so many people were united.” Inspired by the gathering, participants re-dedicated themselves to serving their communities and made concrete plans for their return home.

“The idea was to have a spiritual impulse that would set the tone for this holy year,” explained Sahar, one of the organizers of the youth conference, held near Frankfurt. “The stories of these youth have inspired a lot of action and helped us to draw on spiritual concepts such as sacrifice, understanding your reality, service, teaching, and selflessness.”

Samuel, another of the conference’s organizers, found that the conference not only inspired the participants but helped them to see that they are not alone. “Many youth attending the conference said they felt much more reassured knowing that there are so many others walking this path of service,” he explained. “Really, just at this conference, there are 500 other youth learning about this.”

Other local communities around Germany are also preparing for the bicentenary, focusing on integrating the coming celebration into their community building efforts as well as visiting friends and family members to deepen connections and bonds of love. In Mannheim, for example, the community is organizing storytelling nights in different neighborhoods and plans to produce podcasts of the narratives being shared. In Muenster, a group formed a choir and is planning an artistic performance in honor of the bicentenary in October.

Bringing the insights of religion into development

BRUSSELS — Last week, Europe’s foremost annual conference on social and economic development brought together more than 8,000 participants, among them societal leaders and non-governmental organizations, to tackle the issue of global inequalities.

The conference, called European Development Days (EDD), reflected a shift that is occurring in development thinking. There is a growing recognition that social and economic development should not be viewed as an activity one group carries out for another. Nor is it any more viable to ignore the spiritual aspirations and convictions of a population and the vital contribution religion makes to development.

“It is not acceptable to see the masses of humanity as passive recipients of aid,” explained Rachel Bayani, representative of the Baha’i International Community (BIC) and moderator of one of the EDD panel discussions called “What’s religion got to do with it?”, held on 18 June. “Whatever the nature of the support from outside, development activity should emerge from within a community and belong to the people and institutions that are implementing it.”

Co-organized by World Vision International, ACT Alliance, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Brot für die Welt, EU-CORD Network, and the BIC, the panel explored how religious groups and faith-based organizations constitute a major component of local capacity in many settings.

“Faith and religion are what motivate most people in the world, for good or for ill. It’s hard to see how a development activity can emerge and belong to the people on the ground if those essential elements are not part of the equation,” Mrs. Bayani asserted in her opening remarks.

Six panelists from Europe, South America, and Asia, joined a packed room in a discussion that sought to move beyond simplistic conceptions of religion as either good or bad in the context of development. The discussion conveyed a more nuanced understanding, allowing for a genuine exploration of religion’s potential for constructive transformation.

Rev. Christo Greyling of World Vision International described the importance of working with local faith communities to create development policies and practices together, taking into consideration the aspirations, hopes, and beliefs of the true stakeholders—local populations. “You need to start specifically with the universal principles of the values that they already agreed on, values such as the dignity of human being, the need to stand up for justice,” Rev. Greyling said.

The importance of empowering local populations was echoed by other panelists, such as Henriette Geiger, with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development: “Nothing can be imposed from the outside. You can only work with what you have locally.”

Other speakers highlighted the need to decouple religion and tradition and to see that many prevalent beliefs and practices in a population do not originate from religious scripture. “We need to read and understand the texts with more progressive and open minds and think of what is real religion, which is about spiritual things … and not go into the trap of tradition that is presented as religion,” said Mohammad Abou Zeid, a senior judge from the Family Court of Saida, Lebanon.

The space opened a rich discussion between religious actors and policymakers, bridging a historical divide that has proven unproductive and harmful for meaningful progress. More than 70 people attended the event. The panel discussion can be heard here.

Rosewater is not a crime

Iranian authorities have raided a number of Baha’i homes and warehouses in a village near Ghamsar and dismantled and removed containers used for making rosewater and other related equipment, another gross instance of the economic pressures being exerted by the authorities on the Baha’is.  

Agents from the Amaken1 Office, the Department of Health and Hygiene, the Intelligence Office, the Prosecutor’s Office in Kashan, and the police of Ghamsar entered the village on May 21, 2019, and confiscated all rosewater and herbal extracts bottles and on finding vinegar, falsely accused the Baha’is of making alcoholic drinks.

The village is situated in a region famed for its rosewater industry and many make their living this way.

“The persecution of the Baha’is in Iran is such that the mere fact of making rosewater is now used as an excuse to harass and prosecute them,” said Diane Ala’i, Representative of the Baha’i International Community at the United Nations in Geneva.

“It is yet another way the authorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran are implementing a systematic program of depriving Baha’is of their economic livelihoods.”

It is important to note that the venture was started decades ago by the Baha’is as a way to remain in their village and continue to have access to a means of livelihood despite various economic limitations placed on them by the local authorities, including denying their purchase of certain goods and services,  added Ms. Ala’i.

Despite the equipment being returned the following day, the authorities demanded verbal assurances from the locals that they would not allow the Baha’is to produce rosewater in the future, thereby denying them their means of livelihood.

Mazgan is a village in Ghamsar, Kashan, in Iran’s Markazi province and contains a large number of Baha’is who trace their history to the early days of the establishment of the Baha’i Faith in Iran when Shaykh Mazgan, a local congregational prayer leader, embraced the Faith. Ever since, the local population have been subjected to discrimination and oppression, which was further escalated following the Islamic revolution in 1979.

1. [Amaken (Public Places Supervision Office):  Responsible for the enforcement of accepted moral codes in places of work and other offices.]

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Momentous gathering focuses on Houses of Worship

The oldest of all 10 Baha’i Houses of Worship, the Temple in Wilmette, Illinois, United States, opened in 1953.

BAHA’I WORLD CENTRE — With the inauguration of three new Baha’i Houses of Worship over the past three years and more about to be constructed, the Baha’i world community has been engaged in an intensive process of learning about these sacred structures.

This month, a unique gathering brought together representatives from around the world to explore what is being learned about every one of the Houses of Worship. More than 30 people gathered for the consultations, coming from Australia, Cambodia, Chile, Colombia, Germany, India, Panama, Samoa, Uganda, and the United States.

“We’ve been discovering how a House of Worship reflects the spiritual aspirations of a people,” said Eduardo Rioseco, the director of the Temple in Santiago, Chile. Since its dedication in 2017, over a million people have visited the House of Worship, and it has become a central feature of life for the people of the surrounding community and an iconic symbol of unity for the city. “For many people visiting the Temple, it has been a discovery to connect with their own spiritual identity. So, in a way, to go to the House of Worship is to come back home,” Mr. Rioseco reflected.

The consultations touched on a range of topics, from practical requirements of managing a Temple to its profound spiritual and social impacts on surrounding populations. How does the path to the central edifice reinforce visitors’ longing for mystical connection and spiritual meaning? What dynamics begin to emerge in a community as a House of Worship is built and becomes a collective center of worship open to all? What is being learned about the relationship between a growing devotional character in a community and a multiplication of acts of service for the betterment of society? Participants explored these questions and many more over the course of the three-day meeting.

Some communities have experience with more sophisticated social and economic development endeavors, and these were also a subject of discussion. Of particular interest was the unifying influence Houses of Worship are having on surrounding populations.

Administrators of Temples also presented various environmental initiatives. In New Delhi, India, for instance, wastewater is treated on-site and used to water the gardens, and solar panels provide a substantial portion of the Temple’s electricity usage. In Norte del Cauca, Colombia, the Temple is built alongside a native forestry project that is helping to restore indigenous plants. The native forest is reconnecting the local population to its natural environment, largely overtaken by monoculture farmland.

At the heart of the conversation was one of the central themes associated with Baha’i Houses of Worship: they are sanctuary for all people. “The Temple doesn’t belong to the Baha’is, although Baha’is are the ones managing and taking care of it. The Temple belongs to each and every human being,” noted Santos Odhiambo, the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of Uganda.

In addition to the 10 Houses of Worship currently open, five more are in development: Construction began on a temple in Kenya in March; designs have been chosen for Temples in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu; work is also underway for temples in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and India.

The Baha’i World News Service interviewed representatives of Houses of Worship in Chile, India, and Uganda, which can be heard in a two-part podcast. Part one of the podcast, which focuses on the spiritual experiences people are having at Temples, is being published with this article.

Insights from Baha’i Houses of Worship: Part 1

The Baha’i World News Service interviewed representatives of Houses of Worship in Chile, India, and Uganda, which can be heard in a two-part podcast. Part one of the podcast, which focuses on the spiritual experiences people are having at Temples, is being published with this article.

Subscribe to the BWNS podcast for additional audio content.

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Part two will be made available in the coming weeks.

An in depth exploration of Houses of Worship can be found in a newly published article on The Baha’i World website.

Faith as catalyst of social change: Perspectives from the Congo

Hundreds of people attended an interfaith march in Kinshasa last month.

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic Of The Congo — When representatives of Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i communities first gathered at a Kinshasa juice shop in February, one question above all animated their conversation: How could they articulate to others the deep connection between religion and constructive social change?

That first informal discussion in the Congolese capital city has since evolved into a vibrant dialogue about the power of faith to unify people and give impetus to peace.

“We all had a common vision. We are convinced that religion is a source of unity, so let’s not just talk about it. Let’s take action,” explained Rachel Kakudji, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Baha’i Office of External Affairs. One of the steps the nascent group undertook was to organize a day-long forum highlighting how spiritual principles and concepts impact many aspects of society, such as economics, governance, law, health, education, the media, and art.

For years, the Baha’is have been working alongside fellow religious communities in Kinshasa to give expression to this desire for unifying action. The recently formed interfaith group has been gathering regularly since its inception, calling its meetings the United in Diversity Social Space.

This collaboration is yielding many fruits. For instance, the group has already organized a day-long seminar last month and prepared a short documentary film, featuring interviews with leaders of different faith communities discussing the importance of their collaboration. They explore themes such as how sustainable development contributes to peace and how education can awaken a sense of duty and service, among other topics. Yet, Ms. Kakudji explains that beyond these specific initiatives has been the unfoldment of a process in which people of diverse belief systems are working together, consulting through challenges, and relying on the process of action, reflection, and consultation to make systematic progress.

Bringing together religious, academic, and student speakers, the recent seminar focused on a diverse range of topics, for example how economics can promote collective well-being, how good health is a dimension of a culture of unity, and how education is central to development. Leaders of the faith communities organizing the space spoke about the centrality of spiritual principles to social progress.

“To grow and develop, the world must draw strength from unity,” explained Alex Kabeya, a member of Congo’s Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly. “It is encouraging to see religious leaders and their believers work together in good will, because the process of transformation then reflects the sincerity necessary to contribute to sustainable peace.”

Leaders of some of the faith communities involved, including several Christian groups and the Muslim community, also reflected later on the interreligious collaboration.

“In the holy Quran, unity is what God recommends to men. A true Muslim seeks peace with everyone,” noted Moussa Chirala, the coordinator of the National Confederation of the Muslim Youth of Congo.

Willy Masaka, the national president of the Protestant Youth of Congo, emphasized how the principle of unity in diversity applies to work with all religions: “With this forum for peace, we want to open the voice of unity in diversity beyond ourselves with different religious denominations.”

The seminar was preceded a week earlier by a march in downtown Kinshasa, attended by some 3,000 people. The participants ended their hour-long march at a stage where different presenters shared music and other artistic performances that touched on the importance of unity, caring for the environment, and other aims.

Ms. Kakudji said they plan to screen the documentary film in the coming weeks on a local television channel as well as with their partners in the United in Diversity gatherings.