Communities celebrate, but still face persecution
by Michael Binyon
Two hundred years ago a man was born in Tehran who became a passionate promoter of the unity of God, of religion and of mankind. He took his message far beyond Persia, was persecuted and exiled, and in doing so became the founder of the world’s youngest global faith — the Baha’is.
The birth of Baha’u’llah is being celebrated and commemorated across the world by a community that is still suffering strong persecution in the land of its origin.
The Baha’is now number about seven million, spread across almost every country of the world — from India, where there are an estimated two million, to the remote island of St. Helena, where a small Baha’i community numbering about a dozen has built its own centre to welcome visitors.
Each community is celebrating in its own way: there is no priesthood or central religious organisation. In Britain, with about 7,000 Baha’is, there is a particular emphasis on the community’s work with youth groups, children’s classes and links with other faiths.
(The Huntsville Baha’i Community held a Bicentenary event at Lincoln Mill Oct. 21, preceded by a Resolution by the Huntsville City Council honoring the anniversary.)
Baha’is believe that God’s truth, throughout the ages, is progressively revealed through the sacred writings of all the main religions, and that religious unity and oneness with other faith groups is central to their mission.
In Britain (and in the U.S.) spiritual study courses are run in homes and community centres, and organise activities such as helping old people or cleaning up parks. The aim is to demonstrate a moral commitment to society, and the interconnection between service to humanity and realising one’s own potential.
A new film was, “Light To The World”, documents Baha’u’llah’s life. He believed the press was a powerful way to spread his message and was particularly attentive to The Times, then seen as the most influential newspaper in the world. Just before his death, he called on all newspapers to be “sanctified from malice, passion and prejudice, to be just and fair-minded, to be painstaking in their inquiries and ascertain all the facts in every situation”.
He argued that newspapers were the “mirror of the world” and this was a potent phenomenon. But journalists therefore had to be “purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity”. And in flowery language he appealed to The Times to highlight repression of his followers in Iran:
“O Times, o thou endowed with the power of utterance! O dawning place of news! Spend an hour with the oppressed of Iran, and witness how the exemplars of justice and equity are sorely tried beneath the sword of tyrants”.
Some communities put on exhibitions to mark the bicentenary, telling the story of Baha’u’llah’s life, his teachings against inequality, racism and unbridled nationalism, his persecution by the religious authorities in Persia and subsequent imprisonment, his exile in Baghdad, move to Constantinople and then banishment by the Ottoman authorities, first to Adrianople and then to Palestine, where he died while still a prisoner in Acre.
Some British Baha’is open their homes to visitors, while others are planning festivals. The all-parliamentary Baha’i group — whose members are not themselves Baha’is — held a reception in parliament to mark the bicentenary occasion.
However, there will be no public celebrations in Iran. Baha’is, considered by the Shia authorities as apostates from Islam, have been harshly persecuted, especially since the fall of the Shah’s regime in 1979, and are often given the stark choice of embracing Islam or being killed.
Baha’is have been subject to mass arrests, beatings, torture and arbitrary execution. They have been accused of acting as Israeli spies, of subverting Muslim youth and of anti-government activities. Many are denied work and access to higher education, their houses have been targeted by mobs and have had their property and businesses confiscated. Ten years ago seven Baha’i leaders were imprisoned. One was released last month and the rest are due to be released this year, although hopes are not running high. The UN, the EU, Amnesty and human rights groups have condemned Iran’s treatment of the Baha’is, but the Shia establishment sees them as deeply threatening. Any celebrations in Iran could be used as the pretext for another round of repression.
Elsewhere Baha’is are thriving. Pilgrims flock to Acre and to Haifa, now in Israel, where Baha’u’llah is buried. He is a revered figure, his shrine is surrounded by gardens, and volunteers will be welcoming the visitors. Yet Baha’is do not permit any pictures or photographs of him to be published.
During the bicentenary period, new Houses of Worship are opening in big cities across the world. These are not temples — the faith does not impose mandatory public prayers — but places for prayer and reflection, open to all. The continental House of Worship is near Frankfurt. A local one opened in Cambodia last month, where the faith is growing fast among the survivors of the Pol Pot regime, and another will open soon in Papua New Guinea. The Lotus Temple in Delhi, is expecting hundreds of thousands to mark a bicentenary that has spiritual repercussions around the world.