Contributing to social transformation—reflections on Baha’i participation in discourses

Representatives of a number of national Baha’i communities recently gathered at the Baha’i World Centre to reflect on the past several years of experience learning about participation in the discourses of society. The Baha’i World News Service took the opportunity to interview groups of representatives about the experiences and insights they have gained in this area of endeavor. Listen to one of these conversations in this week’s story.

The next report, to be published later this month, will include an interview about one specific discourse that is becoming more prevalent in countries around the world: the role of religion in society.

BAHA’I WORLD CENTRE — In recent years, national Baha’i institutions and regional agencies have been systematically participating in the discourses of society, such as migration and integration, social cohesion, race unity, the role of religion in society, and climate change, to name a few.

Discourses take place at different levels. Individuals can contribute to discourses in their professions or fields of study. Many individuals and communities are drawn into discourses on issues vital to their neighborhoods and villages. Non-governmental organizations inspired by the Baha’i teachings—for example, in the area of social and economic development—contribute to discourses related to their efforts. The Baha’i community’s formal involvement in discourses related to the well-being and progress of society is facilitated at the national and international levels by offices of external affairs and the Baha’i International Community, respectively.

“There are conversations that are happening all around society in which different people are participating,” Vahid Vahdat, from Brazil, explains in the podcast. “You have government officials, you have the media, you have religious communities, you have local organizations, national organizations, NGOs, and they are all concerned with certain subjects. How does our society advance the equality of men and women? How do we deal with prejudice? How do we bring about united societies? So as a Baha’i community we are taking part in these conversations.”

No matter the setting, Baha’is are learning to contribute insights and experiences that are relevant to the profound challenges facing humanity today. In so doing, they strive to adopt a posture of humility, engage in genuine conversation, generously contribute relevant Baha’i principles, and learn with and from other like-minded individuals and groups.

“It’s not just about the Baha’is contributing ideas; it’s about everybody in the wider society trying to advance this thinking and change the trajectory of humanity’s ultimate development just a little bit, incrementally over time,” notes Ida Walker, from Australia.

This conception of participating in discourses is about cooperation, collaboration, and inclusivity. “It requires the participation of every member of society,” adds Saba Detweiler, from Germany. “And by engaging in conversations with different people, with different organizations, our common understanding will find expression in action. And action can take different forms.”

Ida Walker (second from right), who works with the Office of External Affairs in Australia, speaks in a seminar about social cohesion with participants from around the country. The gathering was held last week on the grounds of the Baha’i House of Worship in Sydney.

Ida Walker (second from right), who works with the Office of External Affairs in Australia, speaks in a seminar about social cohesion with participants from around the country. The gathering was held last week on the grounds of the Baha’i House of Worship in Sydney.


Baha’i efforts to contribute to the advancement of thought find their origins in the very beginnings of the Faith’s history. Baha’u’llah, while a prisoner and exile in Edirne and later in Akka, addressed the rulers of His time. He put forth far-reaching spiritual principles and wrote on a range of topics including issues of great concern to world leaders at the time, for example, calling for the establishment of international peace and disarmament and the abolition of slavery, praising the benefits of representative government, and challenging rulers to give due regard to the rights and dignity of the poor. Another example is ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s penetrating analysis of Persian society in a widely disseminated treatise to the people of Iran, penned in 1875, about the conditions that would conduce to the progress and prosperity of the nation.

Since its establishment in 1948, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) has consistently sought to contribute constructively to international discourses at the United Nations. From its earliest days, the BIC promoted the advancement of women and the education of the girl child, the latter becoming a major topic of discourse in development circles starting in the 1980s and a strategic focus of development efforts since. World citizenship education is another such topic that was advanced by the BIC and has also become a widely recognized element in the UN’s efforts to promote education. Today, the BIC participates in numerous discourses including the equality of women and men, human rights, and sustainable development.

In this podcast, Ms. Detweiler from Germany interviews a group of Baha’i representatives about the experience of the Baha’i community in contributing to discourses on the national and international stages: Rachel Bayani from the BIC Brussels Office, Mr. Vahdat from Brazil, and Karl Wightman from the United Kingdom.

Podcast: What does it mean to participate in the discourses of society?

Subscribe to the BWNS podcast for additional audio content

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Remembering ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s call for unity, a century after World War I

1297_00BAHA’I WORLD CENTRE — Today, Baha’is commemorate the Day of the Covenant, a day dedicated to the remembrance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s unique station in Baha’i history. A century after the end of World War I—the bloodiest conflict humanity had ever known until then—today’s remembrance also harks back to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s urgent efforts to promote peace in the years preceding the war, His critical actions to ease suffering during the crisis, and the relevance of His call for peace today.

During His tour of Europe and North America from 1911 to 1913, ‘Abdu’l-Baha often described Europe as on the brink of war. “The time is two years hence, when only a spark will set aflame the whole of Europe,” He said in an October 1912 talk. “By 1917 kingdoms will fall and cataclysms will rock the earth.”

Newspaper reports of His talks highlighted His warnings to humanity of an impending war and the urgent need to unify:

  • “The Time Has Come, He Says, for Humanity to Hoist the Standard of the Oneness of the Human World…” –The New York Times, 21 April 1912
  • “PERSIAN PEACE APOSTLE PREDICTS WAR IN EUROPE” –Buffalo Courier, 11 September 1912
  • “Abdul Baha Urges World Peace” –The San Francisco Examiner, 25 September 1912

In July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the Great War began.

An article in The New York Times on 21 April 1912 describes the talks ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave while visiting the city.SLIDESHOW
12 images
An article in The New York Times on 21 April 1912 describes the talks ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave while visiting the city.

Noting the significance that ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave to the issue of peace, Century of Light, a publication commissioned in 2001 by the Universal House of Justice, states: “From the beginning, ‘Abdu’l Bahá took keen interest in efforts to bring into existence a new international order. It is significant, for example, that His early public references in North America to the purpose of His visit there placed particular emphasis on the invitation of the organizing committee of the Lake Mohonk Peace Conference for Him to address this international gathering…. Beyond this, the list of influential persons with whom the Master spent patient hours in both North America and Europe—particularly individuals struggling to promote the goal of world peace and humanitarianism—reflects His awareness of the responsibility the Cause has to humanity at large.”

Having raised the warning and urged the world to work for peace, ‘Abdu’l-Baha returned on 5 December 1913 to Haifa, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Aware of the coming war, He took steps to protect the Baha’i community under His stewardship and to avert a famine in the region. One of His first decisions upon returning to the Holy Land was to send home all the Baha’is who were visiting from abroad.

Less than a year later, war broke out in Europe. As the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Allied Powers—including France, Britain, and eventually the United States—formed a strict blockade around Haifa. Communication and travel in and out of the area were almost impossible. Haifa and Akka were swept into the hysteria of war.

To protect the resident Baha’is of Haifa and Akka from danger, ‘Abdu’l-Baha decided to move them to a nearby Druze village called Abu-Sinan, while He remained in Akka with only one other Baha’i. However, bombardment by the Allied forces necessitated that He eventually join the other Baha’is in the village; at one point, a shell landed, but did not explode, in the Ridvan Garden near Akka. ‘Abdu’l Baha had the Baha’is in Abu-Sinan establish a dispensary and a small school for the area’s children.

‘Abdu’l-Baha also intensified efforts to protect the surrounding populations. He directed Baha’i farmers in the Jordan River Valley to increase their harvest yields and store extra grain in anticipation of a future shortage. After the war broke out and food supplies became scarce, He ensured that wheat would be distributed throughout the region. In July 1917, for example, He visited one farm in Adasiyyih, in present-day Jordan, for 15 days during the wheat and barley harvest. He had the surplus carried by camel to the famine-stricken Akka-Haifa area.

“Agony filled (‘Abdu’l-Baha’s) soul at the spectacle of human slaughter precipitated through humanity’s failure to respond to the summons He had issued, or to heed the warnings He had given.”

—Shoghi Effendi

Throughout His ministry as the head of the Baha’i Faith, from Baha’u’llah’s ascension in 1892 to His own passing in 1921, ‘Abdu’l-Baha was in constant correspondence with Baha’is around the world. But during the war, His contacts with those outside the Holy Land were severely restricted.

Still, during this time, ‘Abdu’l-Baha took on two of His well-known works: Memorials of the Faithful and Tablets of the Divine Plan. The first was the publication of a series of talks He delivered during the war, eulogizing 79 heroic Baha’is. The latter was a series of letters, written in 1916 and 1917, that laid the foundation for the global spread of the Baha’i Faith.

Eventually, during the war, ‘Abdu’l-Baha resumed weekly gatherings in His home, warmly greeting visitors and meeting with people from all segments of society, including Ottoman, British, German, and other military and government figures.

“Agony filled His soul at the spectacle of human slaughter precipitated through humanity’s failure to respond to the summons He had issued, or to heed the warnings He had given,” Shoghi Effendi later wrote about ‘Abdu’l-Baha during this time in God Passes By.

Indian lancers march through Haifa after it was captured from the Ottomans in September 1918 (Credit: British War Museum, accessed through Wikimedia Commons).
Indian lancers march through Haifa after it was captured from the Ottomans in September 1918 (Credit: British War Museum, accessed through Wikimedia Commons).


Following Haifa’s liberation on 23 September 1918, the city was in a frenzy. ‘Abdu’l-Baha maintained an atmosphere of calm and dignity as He received a continual flow of visitors including generals, officials, soldiers, and civilians. News of His safety gave relief to Baha’is around the world. With the end of the war, ‘Abdu’l-Baha would soon meet many more Baha’is and other visitors from abroad as the doors to that sacred land were open again.

While Europe was jubilant with the end of the Great War and a world-embracing institution was taking form in the League of Nations, ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote in January 1920:

“The ills from which the world now suffers will multiply; the gloom which envelops it will deepen. The Balkans will remain discontented. Its restlessness will increase. The vanquished Powers will continue to agitate. They will resort to every measure that may rekindle the flame of war.”

Conscious of the threat of yet another war, ‘Abdu’l-Baha showed great interest in movements working for peace. In 1919, for example, He corresponded with the Central Organization for a Durable Peace at The Hague, which had written to Him three years earlier. In a message, referred to as the Tablet to The Hague, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, while praising the organization, was also candid in stating that peace would require a profound transformation in human consciousness and a commitment to the spiritual truths enunciated by Baha’u’llah.

“At present Universal Peace is a matter of great importance, but unity of conscience is essential, so that the foundation of this matter may become secure, its establishment firm and its edifice strong,” ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote in that letter. “Today nothing but the power of the Word of God which encompasses the realities of things can bring the thoughts, the minds, the hearts and the spirits under the shade of one Tree.”

In His will, Baha’u’llah appointed His oldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, as the authorized interpreter of His teachings and head of the Baha’i Faith. Upholding unity as the fundamental principle of His teachings, Baha’u’llah established a Covenant through which His religion would not split into sects after His passing. Thus, Baha’u’llah instructed His followers to turn to ‘Abdu’l-Baha not only as the authorized interpreter of the Baha’i writings but also as the perfect exemplar of the Faith’s spirit and teachings.

Baha’is Observe “Day Of The Covenant”

Today is the Day of the Covenant, an occasion celebrated by Baha’is around the world.

The Day of the Covenant commemorates Baha’u’llah’s appointment of His eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, as the Center of the Covenant. ‘Abdu’l-Baha was charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the Baha’i Faith against schism and division in the years after the passing of its’ Founder.

‘Abdu’l-Baha carried out this charge by educating Baha’is around the world about the teachings and tenets of the Baha’i Faith. This video clip highlights His visit to America in 1912, the relevance of His teaching work to social ills still faced in our country today, and His work to promote the unity of the Baha’i community.

The video was originally shown at The Second Baha’i World Congress, held this week in 1992 in New York City.


Surge in persecution of Baha’is across Iran raises alarm

NEW YORK—23 November 2018

Members of the Baha’i community in Iran have been faced in recent weeks with a new wave of intensified persecution—including arrests, discriminatory court verdicts, and shop closures—for merely practicing their faith, the Baha’i International Community has learned.

More than 20 Baha’is have been arrested in various cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan in the last two weeks alone. Over 90 Baha’is currently remain imprisoned in Iran.

Up to a dozen Baha’is have in recent days also received discriminatory and harsh court verdicts across the country. Nine Baha’is in Isfahan were falsely charged with “membership in the unlawful administration of the perverse Baha’i sect for the purpose of action against internal security” as well as “engaging in propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic” based on various absurd pretexts, including praying with others. The nine Bahá’ís were served a combined sentence of over 40 years of imprisonment.

Over a dozen Baha’i-run businesses were shut down by the authorities in Khoramshahr, Ahvaz and Abadan in Khuzestan province this month in connection with the owners closing their shops temporarily to mark two major Baha’i holy days.

In some instances, shopkeepers notified the authorities in advance that they would be closing their shops for the holy days. The authorities consequently sealed their shops before the holy days took place. In other cases, after their shops were sealed, the business owners sought to rectify the injustice by approaching the appropriate authorities. Instead of unsealing their shops, they were presented with a court summons on the basis that they had closed their businesses to celebrate their holy days—despite the fact that Iranian labour laws state that shop owners may lawfully close their businesses for 15 days in a year without providing reasons for doing so.

Hundreds of shopkeepers across Iran have had their businesses shut down by the authorities in recent years for temporarily closing them to observe Baha’i holy days. Many of these shops remain sealed to this day, depriving their owners of earning a livelihood for their families and creating severe economic and humanitarian hardship.

Persecution against the Baha’i community also extended to cemeteries and burials. Most recently, the body of a Baha’i that had been laid to rest by her family in a Baha’i cemetery was subsequently exhumed by the local authorities—the fourth case of exhumation experienced by the Baha’is at this same location in recent years.

“These latest actions by the authorities are deeply concerning and mark an escalation of pressure against the Iranian Baha’i community, including through economic, social, cultural and educational discrimination,” said Diane Ala’i, Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations.

“Despite all evidence to the contrary, Iranian authorities repeatedly and brazenly deny targeting Baha’is due to their religious beliefs, but this has no credibility in the international community. Indeed, last week, the international community delivered a strong signal to the Iranian officials by adopting a resolution at a committee of the UN General Assembly, and yet, the government continues to flagrantly violate international norms and standards as well as to contradict its own laws,” Ms. Ala’i added.

UN resolution calls for end to Iran’s rights violations against Baha’is

Secretariat Building at United Nations HeadquartersUNITED NATIONS — The United Nations General Assembly has called on Iranian authorities to end ongoing human rights violations against the Baha’is in Iran.

A resolution, adopted Thursday by a vote of 85 to 30, with 68 abstentions, expressed “serious concern regarding ongoing severe limitations and restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”

The United States and Canada voted to support the resolution, Mexico abstained from voting.

The international community noted in the resolution Iran’s attacks on Baha’i places of worship and cemeteries and “other human rights violations, including harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, denial of access to education and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities.”

Tens of thousands of Baha’is experience educational, economic, and cultural persecution on a daily basis for merely practicing their faith. At present, more than 70 Baha’is remain imprisoned in Iran for their beliefs.

Baha’is in Iran also experience incitement to hatred and attacks. This photo shows a graffiti marking from a cemetery in Hamadan saying, “death with most severe torture.”

Baha’is in Iran also experience incitement to hatred and attacks. This photo shows a graffiti marking from a cemetery in Hamadan saying, “death with most severe torture.”


“It is hoped that this resolution sends a strong message to the Iranian authorities that ongoing violations against the Baha’i community will not go unnoticed,” said Bani Dugal, the Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community’s United Nations Office. “Any form of discrimination against religious minorities for merely practicing their faith is entirely unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

The resolution also calls on the Iranian government to release from prison Afif Naeimi, a member of the former group known as the Yaran, which tended to the basic spiritual and material needs of the Iranian Baha’i community. The other six members of the former ad-hoc group were released over the past year after serving 10-year prison sentences given through a legal procedure that lacked any semblance of due process.

The resolution was sponsored by Canada and had 34 co-sponsors.

The long history of the state-sponsored persecution of the Baha’is in Iran is well documented. The Archives of Baha’i Persecution in Iran website compiles thousands of official documents, reports, testimonials, photos, and videos revealing irrefutable proof of relentless persecution. The October 2016 report “The Baha’i Question Revisited: Persecution and Resilience in Iran” also describes the Iranian government’s systematic persecution of the Baha’is.

Baha’i Most Holy Book published in Cebuano


A translation of the Kitab-i-Aqdas in Cebuano, the second-most widely spread native language in the Philippines, was published last month.
A translation of the Kitab-i-Aqdas in Cebuano, the second-most widely spread native language in the Philippines, was published last month.


MANILA, Philippines — Gil Tabucanon remembers being a boy, sitting beside his grandmother and listening to her read the Bible in their native Cebuano language.

“I loved the music of the Cebuano Bible. It was ingrained in me as a little boy. The melodies were in me,” Dr. Tabucanon says, describing the tonality of his mother tongue, spoken by about 20 million people in the central Philippines. “I wanted to do that for the Kitab-i-Aqdas.”

After more than a decade of effort, Dr. Tabucanon completed his translation of the Most Holy Book of the Baha’i Faith, which was published last month by the Philippines Baha’i Publishing Trust. This translation makes available to an entire population Baha’u’llah’s book of laws, first penned in Arabic about 1873 while he was still imprisoned within the city of ‘Akka. The Kitab-i-Aqdas was also translated into the Philippines’ most widely spoken language, Tagalog, in 2003.

“Reading or hearing the Word of God in one’s mother tongue touches heartstrings that are only accessible in that language,” explains Adore Newman, the secretary of the Philippines’ National Spiritual Assembly. “This is another bounty of a beautiful translation, to be connected to the Manifestation of God on such a profoundly heartfelt level.”

The Universal House of Justice has written in the introduction to the Kitab-i-Aqdas: “Of the more than one hundred volumes comprising the sacred Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the Kitab-i-Aqdas is of unique importance. ‘To build anew the whole world’ is the claim and challenge of His Message, and the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is the Charter of the future world civilization that Bahá’u’lláh has come to raise up.”

Baha’u’llah revealed the Kitab-i-Aqdas in this room in the house of Udi Khammar, where he was confined in Akka about 1873. This photo shows the room during the 1990s.

Baha’u’llah revealed the Kitab-i-Aqdas in this room in the house of Udi Khammar, where he was confined in Akka about 1873. This photo shows the room during the 1990s.

Although Baha’u’llah’s writings are in both Arabic and Persian, Baha’u’llah used Arabic in those texts where precise meaning was required for the articulation of principles and laws. Baha’u’llah also employed in the Most Holy Book a beautiful prose with elements of poetry, such as rhythm, metaphor, and personification. Shoghi Effendi rendered about a third of the text into English, providing a model for the final English publication. The House of Justice explains that the translation of the remaining text strove for three qualities: “accuracy of meaning, beauty of English, and conformity of style with that used by Shoghi Effendi.”

“[T]he Kitáb-i-Aqdas is the Charter of the future world civilization that Bahá’u’lláh has come to raise up.”

—the Universal House of Justice

In 1992, the first authorized translation of the Kitab-i-Aqdas was published, making it available in English. Writing shortly afterward, Suheil Bushrui explained in his book The style of the Kitab-i-Aqdas: Aspects of the Sublime: “It is now the task of translators in different countries around the world to render the Kitab-i-Aqdas into their own native tongues, basing their renderings upon the authorized English translation but referring as needed to the text of the original. The special difficulties encountered by the English translators are no less likely to pose a challenge to these other translators. Their daunting task is to convey in a foreign language the unique qualities of a book concerned not only with mapping out a new way of life for the individual and society, but with bringing about a future state of ‘true understanding in a spirit of love and tolerance’ throughout the world,”.

Dr. Tabucanon was a young man when he embraced the teachings of Baha’u’llah. A lawyer by profession, he began translating the Baha’i sacred texts into Cebuano with a small book of prayers before working on The Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah’s principal ethical text. In 1999, he translated a compilation of prayers and writings used for the Nineteen Day Feast. He completed the Kitab-i-Aqdas after three attempts, starting from the beginning each time: first in 2004, then in 2009, and finally in 2014.

Translating from English, Dr. Tabucanon found it challenging to ensure the text utilizes the tonality and onomatopoeic nature of Cebuano.

“Translation is not about a one-to-one correspondence from English to Cebuano. There has to be both faithfulness to the original language and the musicality of the vernacular,” he notes. “I learned that as a boy, from my grandmother.”

Probing violent radicalization

MADRID, Spain — The rise of violent radicalization has sparked a sense of urgency in and across many societies. In Spain, where radicalization has become a growing concern, the Baha’i community has sought to contribute meaningfully to the prevalent thinking about this vexing issue.

In addition to approaches that seek to address radicalization at the level of policies, security measures, and technological interventions, there is a need for a deeper, evolving understanding of religion and its constructive role in society today. Representatives of Spain’s Baha’i community underscored this point in a recent high-level exploration of the causes of and responses to violent radicalization. At the core of faith, they argued, is the recognition of our profound oneness.

Co-organized by Spain’s Baha’i community, a conference on 26 October brought together some 70 people—among them officials from Spain’s military and intelligence agencies, other government representatives, academics, journalists, and activists—in a dynamic exploration of this topical subject.

The discussions touched on concepts vital to responding to radicalization: the need for widespread consultative processes that build common understanding among the diverse segments of society; a due regard for the insights of both science and humanity’s great spiritual traditions; the delegitimization of violence as a response to oppression; the effective integration of newcomers; the liberating power of education; and the opportunity for all people to participate in the life of society.

“These are fundamental elements in efforts to overcome violent radicalization, especially when it is religiously motivated,” noted Sergio Garcia, the director of the Spanish Baha’i community’s Office of Public Affairs. Central to efforts to eradicate radicalization is an understanding of religion that allows for its constructive powers to be realized, he argued.

More than 70 people attended a daylong seminar about radicalization, organized by the Baha’i community of Spain in collaboration with several other organizations. The seminar was held on 26 October at the Center of University Studies associated with the King Juan Carlos University in Madrid.

More than 70 people attended a daylong seminar about radicalization, organized by the Baha’i community of Spain in collaboration with several other organizations. The seminar was held on 26 October at the Center of University Studies associated with the King Juan Carlos University in Madrid.


Spain’s Baha’i community has been participating in a growing discourse on the role of religion in society, in which radicalization has been an important topic. The daylong seminar at the Center of University Studies associated with the King Juan Carlos University in Madrid was the first in a series aiming to advance understanding about the causes of and responses to religious radicalization.

In the seminar, speakers noted how radicalization is a gradual process that manifests both in a person’s thoughts and actions. Religion has often been misused as a powerful force for directing motivation toward destructive ends, speakers noted.

“In exploring the connection between religion and violent radicalization, it is important to look honestly and objectively at the way religion has been manipulated to give impetus to this phenomenon,” said Leila Sant from the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs in Spain. Ms. Sant highlighted the need for a more robust conversation about religion.

“Despite the abuse of religion today and throughout history, there is no other phenomenon that reaches into such depths of motivation and inspires human beings to dedicate themselves to a higher cause,” said Dr. Garcia. “It is ultimately the power latent in religion that can transform anger and hatred into love and respect for the inherent dignity of others. The Baha’i writings teach that religion has an essential role in overcoming religious fanaticism, which is described as ‘a world-devouring fire.’”

“Once the religious dimension of radicalization is understood,” explained Dr. Garcia, “then it can be addressed from other social, political, and economic angles such as identity, strategy, political aims, and nationality.”

According to Ms. Sant, the event was a success not only because of the rich ideas that were shared. “This was not a space where people came, gave speeches, and then left. It was a space where a dialogue unfolded and everyone’s understanding advanced together.”