Delegates arrive in Haifa for International Bahá'í Convention

April 27, 2008
Members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Democratic Republic of the Congo register on 26 April for the International Baha'i Convention in Haifa, Israel.

HAIFA, Israel — A thousand delegates from 153 countries have arrived – from the southern tip of Africa, to Siberia, to the Americas, to remote Pacific islands – to participate in the 10th International Bahá’í Convention.

On Tuesday, 29 April, they will gather to elect the nine members of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, a task that delegates view as both a sacred duty and a supreme privilege.

“I’ve been preparing myself since November, when I got the ballot,” said Bakary Bojang, 31, a delegate from Gambia. “I give praise that I have the opportunity and the health to be here.”

The convention, held every five years, runs from 29 April to 2 May at the Haifa International Convention Center. In addition to the election, it will include consultation on issues and concerns facing the worldwide Baha’i community.

The delegates are all members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of their countries, elected councils that oversee Baha’i activity in a particular jurisdiction. The balloting process to elect the Universal House of Justice is unlike any other election system in the world.

“There are no nominations and no campaigning,” said Erica Toussaint, 61, a delegate from the United States. “Rather, each elector writes down the names of nine people they feel are the most qualified to serve.

Delegates from Uzbekistan to the Baha'i International Convention visit the Baha'i holy places and gardens on Mount Carmel within hours of their arrival in Haifa on 26 April. Slideshow
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Delegates from Uzbekistan to the Baha'i International Convention visit the Baha'i holy places and gardens on Mount Carmel within hours of their arrival in Haifa on 26 April.

“The process is free from the constraints that I’ve seen in other electoral processes around the world, which for me makes it very profound and moving,” she said.

Preparing for the four-day convention presented a number of logistical hurdles, said Anja Nicke, project manager of the International Convention Office.

“One of the biggest challenges was just communications with National Spiritual Assemblies,” said Ms. Nicke, 35, who was a schoolteacher before coming to the Bahá’í World Centre as a volunteer in September 2004.

“For us, it is a simple matter to send an e-mail or make a telephone call,” she said. “But some National Assemblies are in countries that are torn by war or poverty, and such types of communications are not always so easy.”

In one case, she said, a National Assembly was out of contact for two weeks because someone had stolen the wires that connected them to the Internet and telephone system.

For delegates, the importance of prayer was foremost in their minds as they discussed how they would prepare themselves for voting.

“We have many things to pray for,” said Francis Reimers, 65, from the Marshall Islands, explaining the process by which he decides who to vote for. “I come and I mix with people and I pray about who I am going to vote for and I try to reflect on the people I know.”

The Baha’i writings say that in all Bahá’í elections, which take place annually at the local and national levels and every five years internationally, the emphasis is on choosing individuals with qualities “of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.”

Thelma Khelghati, a delegate from Guinea, said Bahá’í elections differ from traditional electoral systems where “aggressive, ambitious individuals with influence and financial means, or at least the ability to mobilize financial means, end up being the ones we elect.”

Rather, she said, Bahá’í elections are a “spiritual process where the delegates or voters reflect on the demonstrated qualities and experience of all whom they know, and then vote for those whom they feel best combine the needed qualities for a given post.”

Lise Raben, a delegate from Denmark who has participated in five international Baha’i conventions, said the entire process is a great experience. “The feeling of unity is very strong when you see hundreds of people gathered to elect our supreme institution that governs the Bahá’í world. The feeling of love and unity makes an International Convention very special and absolutely different from political elections, where the different candidates often try to exhibit their opposites in a bad light.”

The Universal House of Justice has its permanent seat on Mount Carmel in Haifa. Situated in the Akka/Haifa area are many holy sites of the Baha’i Faith, including its holiest, the burial place of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the religion.

The Universal House of Justice is the international governing council of the Bahá’í Faith. It guides the worldwide Bahá’í community in its development and in its response to changing world conditions.