The American public mostly seems to take our freedom of religion for granted. Although this nation was founded by pilgrims from England seeking religious liberty, the colonial Puritans soon turned to persecuting other colonists who disagreed with their beliefs (going so far as to outlaw the celebration of Christmas). Over time, our government has usually attempted to remain neutral in religious affairs, though Muslims may say that increased scrutiny of their community since 9/11 has had a chilling effect on their ability to freely practice Islam.
Gilroy members of the Baha’i faith recently celebrated this religious freedom when they elected nine members to their Local Spiritual Assembly. Joining with Baha’is around the world, they held free and democratic elections for their local governing body during the annual Festival of Ridvan, considered the holiest period of the Baha’i calendar, commemorating the Baha’i founder’s public declaration in 1863 of his mission as “God’s messenger for today.” Ridvan was observed this year from April 20 to May 2.
The Baha’i community has been active in Gilroy since 1995, with the Local Assembly ministering to the needs of their community by organizing classes for the spiritual education of children, adult study circles, devotional programs, Holy Day observances and service projects. They also conduct Baha’i marriages, pray for members of the community and provide spiritual counseling on matters brought to the Assembly.
There are approximately 11,000 Baha’i Local Spiritual Assemblies around the world, and leaders are elected by secret ballot. There is no professional clergy in this religion, so every aspect of governance is decided democratically by the membership.
Baha’i governing institutions are also elected at the national and international levels and are complemented by an appointed body of advisors. Baha’i believe that their administrative order “provides a model for the effective functioning of a unified global civilization, one which recognizes the distinctiveness of both spiritual and material dimensions of reality and seeks to nurture equally the evolution of each.”
Founded in Persia (now Iran) in 1844, it is the youngest of the world’s monotheistic religions with some 170,000 followers in the United States and 5 million worldwide. Baha’is are committed to public service, refrain from partisan political involvement and are required to “show obedience, submission and loyalty toward governments.”
Despite this, they have suffered severe persecution in the land of their origin by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Baha’is were excluded in 1979 from the country’s constitution, which means they have no legal protections. In 1980, all nine members of their national governing council were abducted and have not been heard from since. More than 200 Iranian Baha’is have been executed or have disappeared, and thousands more have been imprisoned, fired from government posts, barred from higher education and had their personal property confiscated or destroyed.
Reza Allamehzadeh, an award-winning Dutch-Iranian filmmaker, has produced a new documentary about this persecution of the Baha’i in Iran. Although not a member of the faith himself, he was banned by Iranian authorities from entering the country; friends did the actual filming for him. “Iranian Taboo” has not been widely released in U.S. theatres, but there is some hope that it will be aired on a major television network so that more Americans can learn the truth about this massive violation of human rights.
For more information about local Baha’i events, contact Frank Azad at (408) 310-7685. Other information is available at www.bahai.us.