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Baha'i followers enter their holy days

Medill News Service

Some might say that this is a bad time for religion and the proponents of peace.

But Baha'is, who Monday marked the beginning of their most significant holiday, see a silver lining in this time of inter-religious strife.

"It's a very moving, exciting and scary time to be alive even with all of the problems that are facing us," said Kit Bigelow, director of external affairs for the Baha'i Center in Washington, D.C.

"We realize that we are in a situation where we can no longer shut ourselves off from the suffering of the world," she said. "TV brings the rest of humanity into our living rooms and we can no longer deny our commonality. Through all these tests we will forge a world consciousness."

To Baha'is, globalization is not necessarily a dirty word.

"Globalization is a comprehensive vision of world unity," said Suheil Bushrui, a professor and head of the Baha'i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland.

Baha'is espouse a belief in the unity of man and a progressive betterment of society toward the achievement of global peace.

Baha'is have no clergy, emphasize equality of the sexes, and the oneness of God and humanity. They see their prophet, Baha'u'llah, as the latest in the line of prophets after Muhammad and Jesus.

For Baha'i, Monday marked the beginning of the Ridvan Festival, the most significant holiday of the year. Ridvan stretches until May 2. It celebrates the prophet Baha'u'llah's first public declaration of himself as God's messenger during a 12-day period in Baghdad in 1863.

He later went on to write letters to the kings and rulers of the world, including Napoleon III, King and Queen Victoria, the pope and the Czar of Russia about his ideas on collective security, economic justice and mechanisms to bring about world peace.

"We need this message," Bushrui said. "When we speak about justice we talk about justice for the whole world. Justice brings about unity and unity eventually brings forth peace. We can't have peace without unity and we can't have unity without justice."

Baha'is attempt to put into practice their beliefs through advocacy.

"Baha'is very much believe the world has to have an international collective security arrangement, and the Baha'is are accredited to several United Nations agencies and work extensively with the UN," said Robert Stockman, a professor of religious studies at DePaul University and administrator of the Institute for Baha'i Studies in Wilmette.

Though Baha'is number only about 2,000 in the greater Chicago area and 145,000 in the U.S., Baha'is claim more than 5 million adherents worldwide and some sort of representation in nearly every nation on the globe.

The Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette is the largest in North America and the Baha'i national headquarters is in Evanston.

Though a religion with a universal message, Baha'ism is inextricably linked to the Middle East -- past, present and future.

It was in Iran (then Persia) that Baha'u'llah was born, in Baghdad where he first publicly declared his status as messenger, and present-day Israel where he died and where their global headquarters is maintained.

Baha'is, like followers of most fledgling religions, are no strangers to persecution.

"Persecution is very much an issue still in Iran, and in most Muslim countries Baha'is cannot openly practice," Bigelow said. "The major reason is theological, because of the Muslim belief that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets and that no valid and true religion would come after him. Since Baha'u'llah claimed that he was the founder of a new religion, Baha'i were labelled heretics and apostates."

Despite continued denial of religious freedom, Baha'is still number between 300,000 and 400,000 in the birthplace of their religion, Iran.

©Copyright 2003, Northwest Indiana News (Indiana, USA)

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