Ayatollah Tehrani's gift stirs global conversation on religious coexistence
NEW YORK — The ground-breaking gift of a senior Iranian cleric to the worldwide Baha'i community is beginning to stir a global conversation about religious coexistence and freedom of religion.
More statements of support for the actions and words of Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani have been issued in the United Kingdom and India, and other prominent individuals are offering comments in the Netherlands, Spain, and the United States.
The response comes after Ayatollah Tehrani bravely gave to the Baha'is of the world a calligraphic rendering of Baha'i sacred verses, along with a plea for religious "coexistence".
In the United Kingdom, Catholic Archbishop Kevin McDonald said in a statement on Thursday: "In interreligious relations it is vital that adherents of different religions come to understand each other more deeply and more sympathetically. This development within the Iranian context is therefore particularly significant and welcome." Archbishop McDonald is director of the Office for Interreligious Relations of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.
Also on Thursday in the United Kingdom, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church issued a statement praising Ayatollah Tehrani, saying he prays that the promotion of tolerance and coexistence will "become increasingly manifest not only in Iran but across the Middle East and the world."
"Within the last few years it has become increasingly apparent that one of the most important rights to preserve is that of religious freedom, yet many across the world remain persecuted for their beliefs and are denied that very basic right," said Bishop Angaelos. "As Christians we believe that God created individuals with a freedom to choose and practice their personal religion and belief, and viewing this as an essential gift we continue to advocate for all who are entitled to this," he said.
Harry van Bommel, a Member of Parliament in the Netherlands, published news of Ayatollah Tehrani's actions on his blog, saying: "The action of this Ayatollah is important and does not stand alone. There are a growing number of religious scholars who together form a constructive and principled voice [for religious coexistence] that deserves to be supported and promoted."
In the Netherlands, prominent journalist and Middle East affairs expert Eildert Mulder has published a column in the newspaper Trouw extolling Ayatollah Tehrani's action and calling him an "advocate for real freedom of religion or belief". Ayatollah Tehrani's gift was a "striking" action aimed at promoting tolerance between the different religions, he said.
In India, Soli Sorabjee, the country's former Attorney General, and Amitabh Behar, a noted civil society activist, both discussed Ayatollah Tehrani's actions in terms of minority rights.
Mr. Sorabjee called Ayatollah Tehrani's words and deeds "courageous" in a land where "minorities have been suffering human rights violations" and discrimination.
"This senior cleric has indeed articulated constructive and principled voice of commitment to religious tolerance and respect for human dignity which is the dire need in the conflict-ridden societies in many nations and states," said Mr. Sorabjee.
Mr. Behar, who is Executive Director of the National Foundation for India, which works for social justice philanthropy in India, said he hoped Ayatollah Tehrani's gesture would "create a more conducive environment for minority rights in Iran."
"[W]e globally see a spurt in intolerance and discrimination against the minorities of all kinds," said Mr. Behar. "In these times all acts to strengthen a plural and tolerant society and polity are most welcome. We need to celebrate diversity and acts of courage which build a peaceful and just society."
In Spain, representatives of the humanist movement Comunidad del Mensaje de Silo de Alcala de Henares wrote an open letter to the Iranian Embassy in Spain, praising Ayatollah Tehrani and calling for greater religious tolerance.
"It is clear that from a people in whom Poetry is a value and a perspective on life, one could not hope for more than an act as brave as that which has been done, recognizing universal human values such as equality and respect, regardless of what religion one professes," wrote Fernando Montalban, Mabel Naya and Marisol Gonzalez.
In the United States, the FaithStreet website published an article by Michael Karlberg, a professor at Western Washington University who has a special interest in constructive resilience, on its OnFaith blog that linked Ayatollah Tehrani's actions to a list of others who have acted courageously in support of human rights and tolerance.
Ayatollah Tehrani's "message is urgently needed in Iran and his actions provide a model that should be emulated by growing numbers of thoughtful and courageous Iranians," said Dr. Karlberg. "[H]is message and his actions are universally relevant. They offer a model of enlightened discourse and enlightened action that deserves support and emulation in every nation where prejudice and intolerance prevail."
Ayatollah Tehrani's gift was announced on April 7, 2014, when he posted an image of an illuminated calligraphic work quoting several verses from Baha'u'llah's Kitab-i-Aqdas, the "Most Holy Book".
At the heart of the work are the following words: "Consort with the followers of all religions with amity and concord."
The calligraphic work was accompanied by a three-page statement, which, among other things, said: "I present this precious symbol – an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens who respect others for their humanity and not for their religion or way of worship – to all the Baha'is of the world, particularly to the Baha'is of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice."
There is also a growing discussion in the Arab world about the impact and importance of Ayatollah Tehrani's actions.