Yonat Shimron: Baha'is see all people as one
Question: Hue Huynh of Durham asks, "What is the Baha'i faith?"
Answer: The Baha'i religion calls itself a universal faith. It teaches that all the world's people form one race and that the purpose of religion is to overcome divisions of race, gender and class.
The faith was founded by a 19th century nobleman from Teheran, Iran, named Mirza Husayn Ali. In 1863, he became convinced he was a messenger following in the tracks of Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, and he took the name "Baha'u'llah," or "Glory of God."
The Baha'u'llah shunned regionalism and division and declared what he found to be a central truth that, "The earth is but one country and all mankind its citizens."
This principle of world unity extended to religion, as well. The Baha'u'llah believed all religions share a Golden Rule, something like the Christian ethos of "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Once people recognized the essential oneness of the world's faiths, they would drop their prejudice and work together, the Baha'u'llah said.
His ideas, however, did not find favor with leaders in Iran or the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Middle East. He was exiled to Baghdad, Iraq, and eventually to Palestine, now Israel, where he died in 1892. The world headquarters for the new faith was established in Haifa, a northern city in Israel. In the past century, many have converted to the faith.
There are an estimated 5 million Baha'is, or followers of Baha'u'llah, including about 1 million in India. There are an estimated 130,000 followers in the United States, many of whom live in California.
During the height of the civil rights movement, many Southern blacks converted to the faith, largely because of its emphasis on racial reconciliation. South Carolina has the second-largest Baha'i community in the United States with about 17,000 followers. North Carolina has some 4,500 Baha'is.
"It's one thing to say we're all created equally but when you find yourself in an all black or white congregation, then you're not really dealing with the issue," said Eric Johnson, the chairman of the Raleigh Spiritual Assembly and a composer. "Baha'is are spiritually obligated to deal with the issue of racism. We're not allowed to separate along racial lines."
Wake, Durham and Orange counties have seven Baha'i communities. The faith has no clergy. Each community elects nine elders who form a "local spiritual assembly."
The religion draws a mixture of liberals and conservatives. Most believers are civil rights champions. But Baha'is believe that abortion is forbidden as a method of controlling conception, though individual decisions are left in the hands of believers. The faith forbids homosexual relations and approves of capital punishment.
The nine-member Universal House of Justice, based in Haifa, has developed into a central organization that controls all matters of faith, say academics who have studied the religion.
"There's a strong emphasis on obedience to the central administration," said Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "It's my perception that the leadership is moving to the right."
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