Bahai News -- The Times - Faith, peace and tolerance in Monterey September 03, 2003

Faith, peace and tolerance in Monterey

By Chris Ayres and James Bone

Four years ago David Kelly made a personal odyssey to the Californian resort of Monterey. He was there, not to visit its military installations or its tourist boutiques but to convert to the Baha'i faith

IT WOULD SEEM an unlikely place to find peace for the soul. Monterey, an affluent city on California’s central coast, about an hour’s flight north from Los Angeles, is known more for its proximity to military installations and its role as retirement city of choice for generals and one-time spies than for any sense of spirituality. But it was to this beautiful seaside resort, often shrouded in mist because of the hot air from the Californian deserts hitting the cold Pacific, that David Kelly came four years ago to make a declaration of faith to the Baha’i religion.

On September 25, 1999, he would have turned his back on the postcard landscape of sand dunes and gleaming ocean that marks California’s Pacific Coast Highway, and taken the incongruously named Bonny Doon Road up through the towns of Loch Lomond and Bracken Brae, until he came to the first signpost to the Bosch Baha’i School, one of only four such establishments in the United States and an inspiration for the British scientist and biological weapons expert. He was possibly accompanied by his friend and spiritual mentor Mai Pederson, the American woman thought to be responsible for introducing him to the Baha’i faith.

Monterey, with its proximity to the Defence Language Institute and other military installations, was a natural destination for Dr Kelly; the Monterey Institute of International Studies, which has its own Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, the largest non-governmental organisation in the world devoted to curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, would have been an essential place for him to visit. The centre is thought to have one of the largest databases of information on Saddam Hussein’s regime in the world. The city itself, an old fishing town turned into a tourist mecca, with chi-chi boutiques and restaurants that line the seafront — a kind of Covent Garden-on-sea — is similar to other California coastal towns such as Carmel and Santa Barbara that look out over the rolling surf of the Pacific. But it is thought that Dr Kelly visited Monterey not for the expertise offered by the city’s scientists, but for the consolation of the soul that he would find in the Baha’i school high above the city, overlooking the California coastline.

After reaching the series of wooden cabins that make up the school’s campus — passing, first, the four garden gnomes, dressed in 19th-century peasant outfits, that wave cheerfully to those curious or devoted enough to go further — he made his simple declaration of faith. According to Joanne McClure, a youthful 66-year-old who pays $65 (£41) a night for room and board at the school, to an untrained eye this would have seemed an almost casual affair, the kind of non-ritual ritual beloved of the Baha’is, who pride themselves on having no formal initiation ceremony, sacrament or clergy. “First we would make sure initiates know who Baha’ullah is — the founder of the faith — and that they really knew what they were doing,” says McClure. “Then they would sign a card saying that there are certain laws they need to obey.” These include abstaining from drink, drugs and gambling; supporting the institution of marriage; believing that God created the universe; and encouraging the end of racial, class, and religious prejudices. After Dr Kelly had signed the card, it would have been sent to the Baha’i national headquarters in Wilmette, Illinois, where the new believer would be put on the mailing list for the American magazine The Baha’is. From then on, Dr Kelly would have been encouraged to attend feasts held every 19 days, which involve prayer-chants, administrative discussions with local spiritual assemblies, and general socialising.

Dr Kelly would have been attracted to the peacefulness and tolerance of the Baha’is, who believe that all religions are essentially valid. As McClure says: “I could never understand why God was going to send all these people to Hell just because they didn’t believe in the same things.” As a scientist, perhaps seeking spiritual succour within an intellectual framework, he would also have been attracted to the faith’s openness to modernity and its lack of fundamentalist dogma.

Throughout 1999 Dr Kelly travelled to New York for six or seven two-week trips to work with fellow experts at UN headquarters, and he visited at least twice more for the regular six-monthly meetings of the UN Special Commission’s (UNSCOM’s) college of commissioners. During this year, he often appeared at Baha’i meetings on the other side of the continent in Monterey, at the group’s traditional 19th-day feasts. Pederson, who was studying at the Defence Language Institute, a heavily guarded military facility that taught American soldiers how to speak Japanese during the Second World War, was also at the feasts. The two had met and become friends when she served under the scientist on a UN mission to Iraq in 1998, the last inspection before the withdrawal of UN inspectors.

John VonBerg, whose wife was the secretary of the local Baha’is’ spiritual assembly at the time, says: “He has been to my home several times. We had special events on holy days, representing various things. His principles were so close to those of the Baha’i faith.”

The last time Dr Kelly visited, VonBerg remembers the Baha’i group going to gaze out over the bay.

Noreen Steinmetz, a friend of Dr Kelly and Pederson, recalls: “He would pass through here every once in a while and we would have the opportunity to sit down with him and go on hikes and chat. I met him through Mai Pederson.” She adds that Dr Kelly always arrived at meetings by himself, and other Baha’is assumed that he was working at the nearby Monterey Institute, where several of his UN colleagues worked. But scientist friends at the centre say he never visited them there.

A glance around the Bosch Baha’i School’s bookshop reveals some possible sources of tension for Dr Kelly. Several tomes focus on the divine importance of the UN, which was eventually ignored by the United States and Britain after it refused to support a military campaign to remove the Iraqi regime.

With that in mind, it is hard to see how Dr Kelly could ever have supported an Iraq war without UN approval.

Even more ominous, however, is a tract entitled Political Non-Involvement and Obedience to Government, compiled by Peter J. Khan. The book spells out the Baha’is’ belief that they should not become involved in any form of politics, because politics can create divisions that could destroy the Baha’i community.

As part of this argument, Baha’is believe that they should support their government, whether just or unjust (there are, however, exceptions). On page 28, Khan poses a question that Dr Kelly himself could have asked: What should we do when controversies arise as a result of government policies?

The answer, provided by the Guardian of the Baha’i faith, the late Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, is this: “In such controversies they should assign no blame, take no side, further no design, and identify themselves with no system prejudicial to the best interests of that worldwide fellowship which it is their aim to guard and foster.”

Khan’s book makes it clear that any Baha’i who does not follow this advice is ultimately weakening the Baha’i religion. Given this official position from the Guardian, it is not hard to imagine Dr Kelly’s horror when he was named as the alleged source of a story blaming Britain’s decision to go to war on a press secretary who “sexed up” intelligence reports.

But would the Guardian have condoned suicide? “Let’s just say,” says Mrs VonBerg, “that it would not follow the teachings of the Baha’i faith.”

©Copyright 2003, The Times (UK)

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