The Baha'i faith, an outgrowth of Shiite Islam, claims a worldwide membership of more than 5 million people living in more than 200 nations and territories.About 2.5 million Baha'is live in India.
In Iran -- where the faith first emerged in the 1840s when Baha'u'llah proclaimed himself to be the divine manifestation for the modern era - there are about 300,000 Baha'is. Considered heretics by the Muslim authorities, they live as a persecuted minority.
The heresy charge stems from Baha'u'llah's claim to prophet status some 1,200 years after Muhammad, the founder of Islam, proclaimed himself God's final prophet.
In the United States, Baha'is claim some 130,000 members -- a third of whom are African-Americans. About 21,000 live in California, with the largest concentration -- more than 6,000 -- in greater Los Angeles.
Baha'is are also relatively strong in South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Arizona and Washington state.
However, Baha'i critics say the religion's membership numbers are wildly inflated. Citing friendly but unnamed sources at Baha'i headquarters in Wilmette, Ill., the dissidents say no more than 30,000 names represent active Baha'is with verifiable addresses.
A 1993 book on Americans' religious affiliations, "One Nation Under God" by demographers Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman, estimated the number of adult Baha'is in the United States at about 28,000.
A cornerstone of Baha'i beliefs is the principle of progressive revelation, which holds that God repeatedly sends divine messengers to Earth and that the latest in a line running from Abraham to Jesus and Muhammad was the 19th-century Persian prophet known as Baha'u'llah.
Missionary-minded and pacifist-oriented, the Baha'i faith teaches the unity of mankind and the commonality of all religions. It also emphasizes the harmony of science and religion, rejection of all prejudice, independent investigation of truth, equality of the sexes and compulsory education.
"The Baha'i Faith's progressive approach to human society originates with Baha'u'llah's emphasis on unity," said a 1992 official profile of the movement. "Indeed, if one were to characterize His teachings in a single word, that word would be unity."
Baha'is have no ordained clergy and little ritual, and are led by elected officials. Despite the declaration of sexual equality, the faith's international authority, the Universal House of Justice based in Haifa, Israel, is doctrinally an all-male body. Bahai's consider the House of Justice to be infallible.
National Spiritual Assemblies direct Baha'i affairs in individual countries. U.S. Baha'i headquarters are in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Ill., site of one of seven Baha'i Houses of Worship scattered around the globe.
Baha'is believe the world is destined to have one government, which will be led by Baha'is and will be based on the faith's administrative framework.
The Baha'i faith grew out of Shiite Islam, and like Muslims, Baha'is are not supposed to consume alcohol and are to adhere to a strict moral code. They also believe in the sharing of wealth and the adoption of a universal language.
Considered heretics by Muslims, Baha'is have long been persecuted by Islamic leaders, particularly in Iran. Baha'u'llah spent much of his life in prison or under house arrest. He died while under house arrest near Acre, just north of Haifa, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire.
Since 1980, more than 200 Iranian Baha'is have been executed and thousands have been imprisoned, according to reports, leading to frequent condemnations of Teheran by the U.S. State Department. Because of this persecution, the recently organized, 20-member Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad has a Baha'i member.
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