A closer look at religious coexistence through recent events

September 8, 2014

BAHA'I WORLD CENTRE — When a member of Iran's ecclesiastical class gifted a calligraphic presentation of the words of Baha'u'llah to the Baha'is of the world in April 2014, the act was unprecedented and stood in sharp contrast against a backdrop of 170 years of uninterrupted religious persecution.

While the gift that Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani made to the Baha'i community is, in and of itself, highly noteworthy, for Baha'is it is the motivation that lies at its heart that merits public commendation and attention. The fact that he has in the past made similar overtures to Christians points to a deep longing to promote coexistence in his native land. Yet he is not alone; multitudes in Iran and throughout the world yearn for peace and harmony; most acknowledge that they themselves do not know how this can be achieved.

An understanding of the historical circumstances preceding the occasion of this senior cleric's gift provides a point of reference in the recent wave of comments and responses from religious leaders around the world about peaceful coexistence.

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An illuminated calligraphic work by Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, containing the words of Baha'u'llah. The quotation reads: Consort with all religions with amity and concord, that they may inhale from you the sweet fragrance of God. Beware lest amidst men the flame of foolish ignorance overpower you. All things proceed from God and unto Him they return. He is the source of all things and in Him all things are ended.

Historical context

Since 1844 when the Baha'i Faith was founded, its adherents have suffered, under successive governments, an endless wave of persecutions. More than 20,000 adherents have been killed for their religious beliefs, and thousands upon thousands have endured unjust imprisonment. Executions, murders, torture, and violent assaults have been among the more overt forms of persecution.

But persecution of Baha'is in Iran has taken other forms as well: widespread confiscation of properties, administrative centers, and Holy Places; desecration of some of the community's most holy sites as well as cemeteries; vandalization of homes, including acts of arson; harassment of Baha'i children in their classrooms; dissemination of gross misrepresentations of the Baha'i teachings and history in educational materials studied in schools; exclusion of youth from higher education; random cessation of business licenses; closures of shops; and the list runs on.

To this day, Baha'is are regularly portrayed as religious heretics, as being associated with immorality and the occult in religious sermons and through state-sponsored media. At the same time, they are also regularly accused of being spies for various governments. And religious leaders have repeatedly incited populations to violence against the community with virtual impunity.

Since 1979, more than 200 Iranian Baha'is have been killed and hundreds more have been tortured and incarcerated.

And in the years since the revolution, how many of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes have been brought to justice? The answer is none.

Showing no signs of improvement, the persecution of Baha'is in Iran is a policy of that country's government. But it is the religious leadership in Iran that has been largely to blame for fomenting in the population prejudice and hatred directed toward the Baha'i community. Indeed, a memorandum of the Iranian government leaked in 1993, indicating that progress of Baha'is in Iranian society should be effectively "blocked", bore the signature of the country's highest ranking religious figure, Ali Khamenei. And more recently, he issued a fatwa in which the people of Iran were told to avoid all dealings with Baha'is.

It is against this backdrop of blind religious prejudice fueled by the ecclesiastical leaders that Ayatollah Tehrani became the first cleric of his rank in post-revolutionary Iran to highlight a central Baha'i belief drawn from the most sacred text of the Faith and the right of the community to practice its religion in the country of its origin.

The months that have followed have revealed how his gesture has resonated with a deep-seated yearning in people of goodwill everywhere, including leaders from a wide range of religions and denominations, as well as academics, journalists, and human rights advocates both in Iran and around the world.

A month after the calligraphic work was gifted, a number of prominent human rights leaders in Iran – for the first time collectively – voiced their public support for the Baha'is and their seven imprisoned former leaders, on the sixth anniversary of their incarceration. Ayatollah Tehrani was present at that meeting, where he stated, "Perspectives have to change... and I think now is an opportune moment for this."

Beyond the boundaries of Iran, Ayatollah Tehrani's initiative has also inspired positive reactions by certain high-ranking officials in the Muslim world, giving further impetus to the conversation regarding religious coexistence taking shape in their countries.

These outcomes have touched the Baha'i community not because of any particular changes for their circumstances within Iran, as recent reports indicate that persecution of the Baha'i community has actually intensified in recent months, but rather because they relate to one of the most cherished aspirations of the Baha'is from the earliest days of the existence of their religion.

Over 100 years ago, as 'Abdu'l-Baha, son of Baha'u'llah and head of the Baha'i Faith after His passing, stopped for one year in Egypt prior to His historic journey to the West, the theme of religious unity featured often in his interactions with prominent individuals and the media.

As His journey continued in Europe and North America, He reiterated in many public addresses that, just as mankind is one, religions are likewise one, and that while in outward form religions are many, their reality is one, just as the "days are many, but the sun is one".

More recently, in its letter to the world's religious leaders in 2002, the Universal House of Justice identified religious prejudice as an increasingly dangerous force in the world.

"With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable," it wrote. "The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation."

The path ahead

History has demonstrated that even the smallest act can have far-reaching consequences. Notwithstanding that the incident perhaps most frequently cited in this regard – the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as having ignited World War I – is a negative one, it is equally true that a single instance of altruism can spark a rise in consciousness that ultimately propels the advancement of a community; a society; a nation; the world.

Those who seek solutions to the havoc being wrought across the Middle East at this very hour readily acknowledge that sectarian prejudice and fanaticism lie at the heart of the intractable problems that beset the people of that region. The action taken by Ayatollah Tehrani, one act of many by people and groups motivated by a yearning for peace, unveils a parallel unfolding process in contrast to the horrors that religious extremism is inflicting on the world, one that offers the hope of constructive change and the possibility that in such an action can be gleaned a seed which, if tended, may yet become a tree that will in turn propagate a forest.