In President’s call for unity, Italian Baha’i community sees common aim

ROME — The Italian president’s call for unity and coexistence in a widely-viewed speech has prompted a discussion about the importance of unity amid an increasingly polarized public discourse.

Seeing common ground with themes of President Sergio Mattarella’s annual New Year’s Eve speech, the Italian Baha’i community decided to write to him. Its letter expressed appreciation for the president’s earnest call to unity and highlighted some concepts underlying the efforts of Baha’is working for the betterment of their country.

“We too feel, Mr. President, in our daily life, in our relationship with colleagues, friends, family and acquaintances a growing desire for unity. Some questions seem to be recurring,” the Baha’i community wrote in its 18 January letter to the president. “What is the destiny of our people? What values, principles, rights and duties should guide our community? What contribution can every individual, youth, and adult, rich or poor, man or woman, Italian or immigrant, give in building a more just and united society, conscious of its high aim?”

The president sent a reply on 4 February to the Baha’i community’s letter, expressing gratitude for its comments.

The president’s 14-minute New Year’s Eve speech, broadcast on the Internet and major Italian television stations, was watched live by more than 10 million people. “It was notable for its call to unity amid a divisive political environment in Italy,” explains Guido Morisco, from the Italian Baha’i community’s external affairs office.

“To feel like a community means to share values, perspectives, rights, and duties,” President Mattarella said in his speech. “It means envisioning ourselves in a shared future, to be built together. It means responsibility, because each of us is, to a greater or lesser extent, a protagonist of the future of our country.” President Mattarella also candidly assessed some of his country’s challenges—particularly unemployment and high public debt—and greeted the country’s 5 million immigrants.

“We’ve been very happy to hear our president talk with such a positive attitude and hope for the future,” says Denise Cumella, also from the Baha’i office.

This is the first Baha’i institution in Italy, the Local Spiritual Assembly of Rome, in 1948. Hand of the Cause of God Ugo Giachery is standing on the far right and was a member of that body.

While this is the first time the president has corresponded with the Baha’is, the community has long engaged with its government. “This conversation with the institutions of our society started in the 1950s when the first Baha’is arrived in Italy. It is an expression of the constant love and respect for our nation and its institutions,” notes Alessandro Benedetti, also with Italy’s Baha’i external affairs office.

In October 2017, a special commemoration for the bicentenary of Baha’u’llah’s birth was organized in the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Italian lawmakers, religious leaders, and civil servants met in the Parliament’s Sala del Refettorio, where records and laws of the Italian legislature are kept and special events are occasionally held.

“The Baha’is of Italy are committed to giving expression to a vision of unity in their activities all over the country,” Mr. Marisco adds.

The evolving Baha’i perspective on interfaith dialogue

This is part three in a series of stories about the Baha’i community’s participation in the discourses of society. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

OSLO, Norway — Recent international interfaith gatherings highlight a growing awareness in the world. Many social actors are seeing in interreligious dialogue a new potential to channel the constructive powers of faith for the betterment of society.

“If we all have humility instead of insisting on the exclusivity of our own perspectives, then we begin to learn from each other,” says Britt Strandlie Thoresen, who heads Norway’s national interfaith organization. As a Baha’i, her commitment to interreligious dialogue springs from a belief in the power of fellowship to foster unity. “We are striving to find a common path together—a path to building a better world with each other.”

Today, the interfaith movement can reflect on more than a century of experience cultivating dialogue between people of different faiths. At the end of the 19th century, the burgeoning movement seemed to hold great promise for ushering in a recognition of the oneness of religion. The 20th century painted a very different picture. Two world wars, a seemingly intractable rise of sectarian violence, religious fundamentalism, and radicalization have left many disenchanted with religion and wary of the value of the movement.

The interfaith movement, however, has made impressive contributions toward promoting unity among the world’s religious communities. Increasingly, people are conscious of how the movement can go even further in helping humanity to attain higher degrees of unity in addressing its most weighty challenges.

For Baha’is, a century of participation in interfaith activities worldwide has sparked a deep reflection in recent years. What is the potential of the spaces opened up in the name of interfaith dialogue? What are its aims and hopes today? How can we participate in a discourse that draws on the insights of religion but goes further to explore their relevance to a world in disarray?

“One way of looking at religion is as a phenomenon that transcends any one faith or sect,” explains Venus Khalessi, who represented the Baha’i community at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last September. One of the aims of participation in interfaith dialogue, she explains, is to draw out universal principles and learn from each other’s experiences applying them. The point is to work toward a more peaceful and just world. “In this sense, religion can be seen as a system of knowledge and practice that is evolving and offers insights and values that can help society advance.”

Britt Strandlie Thoresen (second from right), chair of the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway, speaks among five panelists at a major annual national meeting in the town of Arendal. The event brings together government leaders, civil society, and faith communities to discuss major issues affecting the country. Here, Mrs. Thoresen speaks at a panel on the environment. The event was called “The Cathedral of Hope,” held on the water to highlight pollution of the oceans and other environmental issues.

The view that religion has a vital and constructive role to play in the life of humanity was shared by representatives of many religious groups at the G20 Forum. The conference’s concept paper describes religion’s prominent role in many societal issues.

“Acknowledged or unacknowledged, around the world religion addresses the challenging problems societies and nations face as well as broader societal well-being,” the paper states. “Without the investment of time and resources that religiously-motivated organizations and individuals provide, the United Nations’ SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) are unattainable.”

In November, more than 8,000 people from around the world gathered in Toronto, Canada, for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, another major forum for the global interfaith movement. Baha’is organized sessions on relevant themes such as the empowerment of youth, the relationship between religion and citizenship, the principle of oneness, the equality of women and men, race unity, and more. In all, more than 60 presentations were offered by Baha’is, often in collaboration with people of different faiths.

Mrs. Thoresen sees great value in continuing to invest time in interfaith activities. “We are learning step by step. We are learning to listen, reflect, and communicate with one another in a way that builds common understanding.”

“In this setting, it is important not to dwell on differences but to try to build on what we all have in common, and that is a lot actually,” she continues. The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway, which Mrs. Thoresen chairs, not only holds regular interfaith gatherings in Oslo but also promotes interreligious dialogue in local communities throughout the country.

“We need a kind of dialogue that can harness the power of religion to help humanity tackle its most challenging problems.” 

—Gerald Filson

Interfaith activities vary widely. Some groups primarily seek fellowship; others are oriented toward social change. Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, for example, the country has been increasingly conscious of its religious diversity and has been seeking to cultivate a pluralistic society. Interfaith dialogue has played a critical role in building a common vision for the future. And more broadly in the Arab region, the United Nations Development Programme organized a conference in December, bringing together religious representatives, including Baha’is, for a review of how faith communities are enhancing social cohesion and tolerance.

In addition to the evolving landscape of interfaith activities, some Baha’i communities are observing a new frontier: moving beyond traditional interreligious dialogue to include a wider sweep of society.

“We need a kind of dialogue that can harness the power of religion to help humanity tackle its most challenging problems,” explains Gerald Filson, a Baha’i who used to head the Canadian Interfaith Conversation, the country’s preeminent interreligious organization. “In Canada, we are finding that secular and religious actors can work together in pursuit of the common good. Opening spaces for this sort of collaboration has helped the discourse advance and new possibilities to open up.” The Baha’i community there has co-organized several major national conferences about religion in the public sphere, bringing together civil society and faith-based organizations, academics, and government representatives.

In Spain, a recent seminar focused on confronting violent radicalization, bringing together a high-level panel of security specialists, policymakers, and scholars to better understand and address a growing problem in Europe.

“We have to keep moving forward together—widening the circle to include all people. Only through transcending divides and working side by side for our common destiny can we begin to address the real problems of the world in a way that actually uplifts and brings people together in an understanding beyond rhetoric,” Dr. Filson says.

In their participation in discourses related to religious coexistence, the role of religion in society, and interfaith dialogue, growing numbers of people and groups are learning to draw out religion’s constructive contributions to society, and the Baha’i community is striving to contribute its share to this vital cause. In its efforts, it is finding inspiration in the Universal House of Justice’s April 2002 letter to the world’s religious leaders.

Advancing a discourse on race unity in the U.S.

WASHINGTON — From its earliest days, the United States Baha’i community has been dedicated to the cause of race unity. This strong sense of mission in the American Baha’is was ignited by ‘Abdu’l-Baha during His visit to North America in 1912 when He often admonished them to see no difference between black and white, to accept that all belong to one human race.

Today, the Baha’i community has been reflecting on how it can best contribute to the cause of race unity amid a growing awareness in the country about the entrenched nature of prejudice and structural injustice. “The discourse on race in America has re-surged into the national consciousness,” P.J. Andrews explains in the most recent Baha’i World News Service podcast episode. “So, it is really unavoidable to have a conversation about race in America. And we feel there is a lot to contribute from the Baha’i perspective.”

A renewed sense of purpose is discernible in the Baha’i community’s longstanding dedication to race unity. One of the ways American Baha’is have been working for this cause is through involvement in public discourse. Participation in discourses occurs in scores of community-building efforts at the grassroots, in hundreds of projects and activities for social action, in the involvement of thousands of individuals at the professional level and in other public settings, and in the official efforts of the Baha’i community on the national stage.

Locally, the Baha’i Community is actively involved with the Interfaith Mission Service in support of its 2019 race unity goals, takes part in the City Of Huntsville-sponsored race unity efforts, actively engages in personal efforts to eliminate all forms of prejudice, and sponsors the public viewing of the broadcast of: “An American Story: Race Amity and the Other Tradition”, http://raceamityfilm.org/ .

At the national level, the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs is leading the charge. In the latest Baha’i World News Service podcast episode, two of its staff members, Mr. Andrews and May Lample, discuss the Office’s efforts to participate in constructive social spaces exploring racial justice and unity.

The Baha’i Office of Public Affairs has long been engaged in prevalent discourses in the U.S., such as sustainable development, the advancement of women, human rights, and, in more recent years, race. The Office has spent the past two years attending forums on race throughout the country, meeting with some of the leading thinkers on the subject, and learning with and from like-minded social actors. It has also been bringing into the discourse important insights from the Baha’i teachings. In its efforts to promote unity and contribute to discussions focused on societal betterment, the Office has interacted with lawmakers and government officials and collaborated with civil society organizations and media actors.

One of the questions the Office is asking is what role faith plays in overcoming ingrained prejudice and structural injustice. Religious communities in the U.S. have had a complicated relationship with race. Religion has inspired great acts of sacrifice and heroism for the greater good, but it has also been used to justify oppression and reinforce otherness.

Conscious of the complex and multifaceted nature of religion’s contribution to societal unity, Mr. Andrews and Ms. Lample reflect in the podcast episode on a nascent initiative undertaken by the Office—a series of national level conversations called the Faith and Race Dialogues. These gatherings bring social actors in the U.S. capital together in pursuit of overcoming and transcending racial prejudice. They are one of the many ways the U.S. Baha’i community is striving to heal the wounds of racism and explore a unifying path forward.

A participant in the Faith and Race Dialogue in September speaks during the gathering.

The Faith and Race Dialogues focus on concepts and ideas that underlie action, Mr. Andrews and Ms. Lample explain in the interview. The dialogues aim to elevate discussions above the acrimony and contention that often prevent the discourse on race in the U.S. from advancing.

The Baha’i community is not naïve about the magnitude of the challenge facing society. The Faith and Race Dialogues, Mr. Andrews and Ms. Lample say, are one modest example among the many ways that Baha’is in the U.S. are engaged in the discourse on race unity. And these initiatives across the country will need to expand and intensify in the coming years.

These efforts build on a long legacy within the Bahá’í community. Since the community’s earliest days, Baha’is in the country have been trying to address the problem of racial prejudice, which Shoghi Effendi has described as “the most vital and challenging issue confronting the (American) Bahá’í community…”. ‘Abdu’l-Baha inspired the American Baha’is to initiate a series of race amity conferences in the early 20th century, and He patiently guided a racially diverse community to struggle against the forces of prejudice and disunity.

During His visit to North America, ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke on race unity in spaces such as the renowned Howard University, a historically black college, as well as the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s preeminent civil rights organization. The NAACP’s co-founder, writer and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, was in correspondence with ‘Abdu’l-Baha and published His talk as well as His photo in the organization’s magazine, The Crisis.

In a talk at the Hull Settlement House in Chicago on 30 April 1912, speaking to some of the country’s most progressive social actors of that time, ‘Abdu’l-Baha underscored the importance of religion in overcoming racial prejudice. Despite the numerous commonalities between human beings, He explained, racial prejudice would be insurmountable without tapping the deepest wells of human potential:

“(T)here is need of a superior power to overcome human prejudices, a power which nothing in the world of mankind can withstand and which will overshadow the effect of all other forces at work in human conditions. That irresistible power is the love of God. It is my hope and prayer that it may destroy the prejudice of this one point of distinction between you and unite you all permanently under its hallowed protection.”

A collection of Baha’u’llah’s mystical writings published

A new volume of Baha’u’llah’s mystical writings, The Call of the Divine Beloved, is now available in print and online.

BAHA’I WORLD CENTRE — A new volume of Baha’u’llah’s mystical works is now available online and in print.

The Call of the Divine Beloved has five newly published selections from Baha’u’llah’s writings, including a poem revealed during His time in the Black Pit of Tehran. The book also contains revised translations of two of Baha’u’llah’s well-known works, the Seven Valleysand the Four Valleys.

The Call of the Divine Beloved is available on the Baha’i Reference Library; the book can be ordered through the United States Baha’i Publishing Trust.

For the first time, an authorized English translation of one of Baha’u’llah’s most renowned poetic works, Rashh-i-‘Ama, or The Clouds of the Realms Above, is also now available. Perhaps the earliest fruit of Baha’u’llah’s pen, Rashh-i-‘Ama is one of the few writings He authored in His native land of Persia. The work, composed in 1852 during His four-month imprisonment in the Black Pit, is a poetic reflection on His first intimations of His station as a Manifestation of God.

The remaining six of the publication’s seven works were revealed by Baha’u’llah during His time in Iraq, from 1853 to 1863. After being released from His cruel and unjust imprisonment in Tehran, Baha’u’llah and His family were banished to Baghdad in a perilous journey through the dead of winter. For three months they traversed the snowy mountains of Western Iran, inadequately equipped for the conditions and Baha’u’llah Himself physically frail from His months of imprisonment in abhorrent conditions.

In Baghdad, a small and dejected band of Babis, whose Leader, The Bab, had been executed by firing squad nearly three years earlier, had fallen into a state of disarray and disunity. Baha’u’llah withdrew Himself from the turmoil of the community to the mountains of Kurdistan, where He lived a life of solitude, in near-constant prayer and meditation for two years—a period reminiscent of Moses’ withdrawal to Mount Sinai, Christ’s 40 days and nights in the wilderness, and Muhammad’s retreat to the cave on Mount Hira.

Assuming the identity of a dervish and clad in humble garb, Baha’u’llah was at first unknown to the people of the region. Stories soon spread of a man of extraordinary wisdom and eloquence found in the mountains. Numerous religious leaders and mystics were drawn to Baha’u’llah, often traveling long distances to visit Him.

Two years after His withdrawal, Baha’u’llah, at ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s request, returned to Baghdad, a moment Shoghi Effendi has described as “a turning point of the utmost significance in the history of the first Bahá’í century.” Baha’u’llah’s return revived and animated the Babi community.

The subsequent period, Shoghi Effendi wrote, saw an “enormous expansion in the scope and volume of Bahá’u’lláh’s writings…”. The Sufis and clerics who had come to revere Baha’u’llah while He was in the mountains of Kurdistan were now flocking to Baghdad to visit Him. It was during those years when He penned some of His most renowned works, including the Seven Valleys.

‘Other Traditions’ of Race Amity, and a Pot Luck – You Are Invited!

You (and all your friends!) are invited to the home of Nathan Wolfe and family, 13011 Camelot Drive SE, in Huntsville, Saturday, January 26th, at 3:00 pm.

Join us in watching the inspiring film, “An American Story: Race Amity and The Other Tradition”.  The film was produced by the National Center for Race Amity and co-sponsored by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States as a means of promoting public discourse on race relations. The film “illuminates significant past episodes of collaboration and loving friendship that transcended race”, seeks to “light the way out of the morass of racial prejudice and to fire our enthusiasm for renewed efforts to build community, continuing our ascent toward true equality, justice, and unity”, and “can serve as a valuable resource in your conversations with family, friends, and neighbors on the subject of race relations, vital to our nation’s present and future well-being and the fulfillment of its highest aspirations.”

Come early and get a great seat!

After the film, you and your friends are invited to stick around, enjoy a great pot luck dinner, make music, play games, or just hang out.

Interfaith gathering of senior representatives followed by visit to Shrine of the Bab

(From left) Carmel Irandoust, deputy secretary-general of the Baha’i International Community, reads a prayer as Sheikh Jaber Mansour, Rabbi David Metzger, Emir Muhammad Sharif Odeh, and Father Yousef Yakoub listen.
(From left) Carmel Irandoust, deputy secretary-general of the Baha’i International Community, reads a prayer as Sheikh Jaber Mansour, Rabbi David Metzger, Emir Muhammad Sharif Odeh, and Father Yousef Yakoub listen.

BAHA’I WORLD CENTRE — In a pronounced show of interreligious unity, 10 representatives of the Christian, Druze, Jewish, Muslim, and Baha’i faiths, were joined by 17 Roman Catholic bishops and their advisers from abroad for a special interfaith discussion on religious coexistence on 14 January. After, the diverse group visited the Shrine of the Bab.

The panelists, who represented each of the participating religious communities, focused on how their coreligionists can not only nurture a spirit of mutual tolerance and coexistence but also collaborate on efforts to build unity. A number of speakers noted that the principles of dialogue, tolerance, respect, coexistence, and love for one another are highlighted throughout their sacred scriptures. And in order to create bonds of unity among people of different religions and dispel indifference and prejudice, it is important for people to communicate with and know each other, several of the panelists explained.

Following the discussion at the Baha’i World Centre, prayers were recited in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. The 50 participants then walked to the nearby Shrine of the Bab, a domed building on Mt. Carmel in Haifa, Israel, where the sacred remains of the Herald of the Baha’i Faith are entombed.

(From left) Emir Muhammad Sharif Odeh, Baha’i International Community Deputy Secretary-General Shervin Setareh, Rabbi Naama Dafni-Kelen, Bishop Michel Dubost, Sheikh Jaber Mansour, Sheikh Rashad Abo Alhigaa, and Father Yousef Yakoub spoke on a panel about nurturing a spirit of mutual tolerance and coexistence. Rabbi David Metzger, not pictured, also spoke on the panel.
(From left) Emir Muhammad Sharif Odeh, Baha’i International Community Deputy Secretary-General Shervin Setareh, Rabbi Naama Dafni-Kelen, Bishop Michel Dubost, Sheikh Jaber Mansour, Sheikh Rashad Abo Alhigaa, and Father Yousef Yakoub spoke on a panel about nurturing a spirit of mutual tolerance and coexistence. Rabbi David Metzger, not pictured, also spoke on the panel.

The Catholic clerics were visiting the Holy Land on behalf of the Pope and the Church for an annual meeting to show support to the Christian community; they hailed from a dozen different countries, mostly in Europe and North America. Father Yousef Yakoub, the leader of Haifa’s Maronite Christian community, who co-organized the event, recited the stirring Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”

An American Story: Race Amity and the Other Tradition

An American Story: Race Amity and the Other Tradition will be broadcast later this month on the WORLD Channel and its family of 155 affiliated public television stations across the country. You can watch the trailer for the film here.

The film will be broadcast across Alabama on Alabama Public Television on January 21 at 6 p.m., and on January 26 at 3 p.m.

In Huntsville, the APT television outlet is WHIQ. Specific times and stations of the film’s broadcast can be accessed here―a detailed listing by state, locality, and individual public television stations will be updated every week.

Produced by the National Center for Race Amity, and co-sponsored by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, as a means of promoting public discourse on race relations, An American Story illuminates significant past episodes of collaboration and loving friendship that transcended race. In so doing, the film seeks to light the way out of the morass of racial prejudice and to fire our enthusiasm for renewed efforts to build community, continuing our ascent toward true equality, justice, and unity.T

To learn more about the National Center for Race Amity and its efforts to advance cross-racial and cross-cultural amity, visit its website here.   

This inspiring film can serve as a valuable resource in your conversations with family, friends, and neighbors on the subject of race relations, vital to our nation’s present and future well-being and the fulfillment of its highest aspirations.