Bahai News -- Religion & Ethics Newsweekly . PROFILE . Baha'i . December 13, 2002 | PBS

Profile:
Baha'i

Week of December 13, 2002

Photo of Baha'i prayer book BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: This year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Baha'i religion. It originated in the Middle East. The name "Baha'i" comes from the Persian word meaning 'glory' or 'splendor.' Baha'is believe, among other things, that all the great religious founders have come from God, and that all religious systems established by them are part of a single divine plan directed by God." The Baha'i religion took root in this country in the late 19th century. Judy Valente reports from Wilmette, Illinois:

Photo of Baha'i house of worship JUDY VALENTE: It's a stunning cement structure set on a hill near Lake Michigan outside of Chicago -- a monument on the national historic register. But this three-tiered building surrounded by lavish gardens, is first and foremost a place of worship for a growing, but little understood religion.

The Baha'i House of Worship was dedicated in 1953 to accommodate the U.S. followers of Baha u llah, a Persian prince who Baha'is believe is the most recent in a long line of divine messengers that includes Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Muohammaed.

JUANA CONRAD (Baha'i National Assembly): They were divine educators who came with a particular message to the people at a particular time. We believe that Bahá u lláh is the latest in these chapters in a book, that his message is the divine message for this day, and that he will not be the last.

VALENTE: Bahá u lláh was imprisoned in Teheran in the mid-1850's for his religious beliefs. He eventually would espouse such revolutionary ideas as the unity of religions, racial equality, and a single, new international language.

Foremost of Baha'i beliefs is the oneness of humanity, including equality of the sexes and universal education.

Photo of Juana Conrad Ms. CONRAD: The prophet founder stated that if the family cannot afford to educate all of its children, that the girl child should be the one to be educated because she is the mother of the next generation.

VALENTE: Today in the Middle East many Baha'is are still persecuted. The United Nations and the U.S. Congress have passed several resolutions seeking an end to the repression.

Photo of Nesreen Akhtarkhavari NESREEN AKHTARKHAVARI: Members of my family in Iran are Baha'is and because of their belief in the Baha'i faith they were persecuted by the Islamic regime. They were asked to recant their faith and when they refused, some of them were killed and they were killed very brutally.

VALENTE: There are currently about five million Baha'is in the world, most of them in Asia and the Middle East. Nearly 150,000 live in the U.S., up from 25,000 just 30 years ago.

Most American Baha'is are converts. Gwen Clayborne, an educator, was raised Baptist, but was attracted by the Baha'is' emphasis on racial equality and religious unity.

Photo of Gwen Clayborne GWEN CLAYBORNE (Baha'i convert): Baha'is did not feel they had the only religion. I think that probably was the turning point for me, that I didn't have to give up Christianity and my love for Christ. But I could also embrace my love for Muohammaed, Moses, and Bahá u lláh.

VALENTE: Ronald Precht, a public relations executive, was Lutheran, but began reading Bahá u lláh's writings in college.

RONALD PRECHT: I never had the experience before of reading something and having it deeply affect me to the core of my soul. I wasn't used to that at all.

VALENTE: From dawn to dusk, each day of the week, visitors from around the world stop at the Baha'i house of worship for prayer and meditation.

Dr. ROBERT STOCKMAN (Institute for Baha'i Studies): The pattern is very simple:. Rreading from scriptures and singing. There is no sermon. There is no collection. There's no plate that's passed around. There is a minimum of ritual.

VALENTE: Most Baha'is worship every three weeks in small faith groups that meet in private homes. There is no clergy, and they are prohibited from evangelizing.

Baha'is believe that crises are necessary to lead nations closer to God.

Photo of the Baha'i newspaper ad After the terrorist attacks last year, the Baha'is placed full-page ads in several newspapers, urging Americans to view the events as an opportunity to promote peace.

Ms. CONRAD: We understand that this is some of the suffering that we're going to have to go through in order for the world to recognize that it is moving on a path that is not appropriate.

VALENTE: Answers for a struggling world, Baha'is say, are found in Bahá u lláh's simple message of unity, equality, and respect.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I'm Judy Valente in Wilmette, Illinois.

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