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Baha'i Birthday Bash


The Baha'i House of Worhip at the faiths headquarters in Wilmette, Ill. The faith preaches religious unity.

BY APARNA H. KUMAR
RELIGION NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In the midst of Washington's "religious mile" -- a stretch of dozens of houses of worship that begins near the White House and reaches up 16th Street to the city limits -- sits an unassuming brick house with a wide, welcoming porch.
Unless you were looking for a sign, you would probably miss the small placard out front of 5713 16th St., the only indication that it is the spiritual hub for some 2,500 followers of the Baha'i faith in the Washington metropolitan area.
Although the Baha'i faith forbids proselytizing, the world's youngest major spiritual movement also has been recognized as one of its fastest-growing religions. Today the Baha'i faith is the second most geographically widespread religion after Christianity, with adherents from more than 2,000 ethnic, racial and tribal groups. There are an estimated 620,000 Baha'is in the United States; the North American temple is in Wilmette, Ill., outside Chicago.
"We may not be allowed to proselytize, but we can answer questions and inform people who are ready to hear [about the Baha'i faith]," said Hazel Neave, 73, a member of Washington's Baha'i center. A former Quaker, Neave embraced the Baha'i faith some 50 years ago, prompting her mother, sister, husband, brother and sister-in-law to convert one by one.
Last Sunday, newcomers were welcomed to observe and participate in a special prayer and educational meeting about the religion's 19th century prophet, Baha'u'llah, whose birthday some 6 million Baha'is worldwide began celebrating at sundown Monday.
At the Washington center, and at thousands of similar meeting places, in homes and in the religion's seven major temples (one on each continent), Baha'is mark the holiday with reflection, prayer, singing, dancing and other artistic expression.
For the Sunday morning service, 20 to 30 attendees sat in chairs lining the walls and filling the back of the parlor-sized meeting room.
There are no rituals in the Baha'i religion, nor are there sermons, clergy or distinctive forms of dress. Anyone is free to speak during the services.
Behind an unadorned lectern, Effie Baldwin led the group in a short prayer and explained the main tenets of the Baha'i faith: There is only one God, all the world's religions are based on a common truth and all people are equal, regardless of race, sex, creed, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.
"Let all the religions agree and make the nations one," she said.
The message of unity was evident in the small gathering. The diversity of the men, women and children ran deeper than race. They represented a spectrum of religious backgrounds from Baptist to Hindu.
Douglas Rutherford, a former Baptist with a deep, bellowing voice, sang a Baha'i prayer rendered as gospel song. Children told an oral history of the Baha'i religion and showed their crayon drawings of religious scenes.
Baha'is believe that Baha'u'llah was the latest in a series of God's messengers, including Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha and Krishna, all of whom they embrace. They also believe in "periodic manifestation," which means that a new holy messenger is slated to appear on Earth every 1,000 to 1,500 years.
"I had to understand and accept all the prophets that came before," said Fredda Bartolucci, 54, an American-born Jew who changed religions at 24. "As a Baha'i, I'm also a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu."
Bartolucci related the story of Baha'u'llah, a Persian nobleman born in Teheran in 1817 who was branded a heretic and endured a life of torture and persecution after being accused of plotting to assassinate the shah.
    Baha'u'llah, whose name means "Glory of God," was doubly tortured as a heretic. He is said to have received his revelation while sitting shackled for months in a Teheran dungeon called the "Black Pit."
After his exile to Baghdad, Baha'u'llah declared his mission from God in 1863 and prodigiously scrawled various theological and philosophical tablets addressed to his followers before dying in 1892.

Elaborating on Christianity's Ten Commandments, Baha'u'llah forbade his followers from drinking alcohol and using drugs. He also called for compulsory education for all, abolition of poverty, establishment of a world court and the adoption of a universal language.

©Copyright 2002, The Salt Lake Tribune (UT)


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