Long history of persecution
Since its earliest beginnings in mid-19th century Persia (now Iran), more than 20,000 of its adherents have been killed. Hundreds have been imprisoned.
"According to Islamic fundamentalists, they regard us as heretics," says Rohani, who points out that Bahai's are enjoined by their teachings to be good citizens and to obey the laws of any country they happen to reside in.
Fundamentalist Muslims believe that their prophet Mohammed is the last messenger of God and Islam the final religion, he explains. Thus, to believe in a revealed religion that postdates Mohammed is considered heresy.
Baha'is believe that religion is progressive and open-ended, Rohani says. Adherents regard all the world's religions as steps in the journey toward God will and purpose for humanity. Baha'is are encouraged to participate and study other religions beside their own.
Baha'is, he says, follow the teachings of their prophet-founder Baha'u'llah, who himself suffered torture, imprisonment and exile during a 40-year ministry.
"Baha'u'llah died a prisoner. We can verify this," says Rohani, who points to the vast body of documented writings, consisting of social principles, prayers and meditations, counsels and laws "written with his own pen or signed with his seal."
Furthermore, a number of well-known Europeans, such as English historian, Prof. Edward G. Browne, witnessed the faith's earliest beginnings and sympathized with its intent, he says.
"I am not a member of the clergy," Rohani says. "There is no religious rank in the Baha'i faith." Besides having no priesthood or pastors, members are not to aggressively proselytize, he says. Religion can never be forced. People become Baha'is through their own investigation.
"This is a system of religion that is free from fanaticism, bloodshed. Followers believe in one human race under the banner of one human brotherhood," he says.
To the students gathered in the classroom that day at Carnegie Hall, Rohani recites a special prayer for unity. The unity of humanity is the pivotal principle of the Baha'i faith, he explains.
"According to our teachings, if religion becomes a source of hatred and bitterness, it's better to have no religion."
" 'The earth is but one country and all mankind its citizens,' is an oft-quoted Baha'i teaching," he says
The world spiritual and administrative center is located in Haifa, Israel, the final stopping place in a long series of political exiles imposed upon its founder.
The Baha'i Faith is not organized like a church. At this time, most members meet in each other's homes and open their doors to the public for informal gatherings called "firesides."
There are approximately 15 members in the Lewiston-Auburn area, says Rohani, and more than 650 members in Maine, a figure that includes adults, youth and children. Nationally, there are approximately 138,000 members.
A group of nine members is required to elect and form a spiritual assembly. Assembly members and representatives are elected by a democratic process that involves no campaigning. Administrative decisions are arrived at through group consultation.
"I think people don't take the persecution of Baha'is very seriously," Rohani says.
"When we compare it to other events in the world, in 18 years (since the Iranian revolution), not many Baha'is have been killed -less than 300. This is because Baha'is don't take arms. Therefore, not many Baha'is are killed directly. Of course, one person is too many. But, we appeal to the courts and the international community. Bloodshed is minimized....
"This is the wisdom of the author of this faith. You do not fight with material means, but with logic and wisdom."
For more information: The National Baha'i Center, Wilmette, Ill. 60091 or 847-869-9039; Office of Public Information: 866 United Nations Plaza, Suite 120, New York, N.Y. 10017-1822 (212) 803-2500; Office of External Affairs: 1320 19th St., N.W., Suite 701, Washington, D.C. 20036-1610, (202) 833-8990.
a Lynn Ascrizzi