The faces of the Bahá'í world

May 12, 2008
Among the thousand delegates from 150 countries at the International Bahá'í Convention were Keyhan Ighanian and Thor Henning Lerstad, both from Norway.

HAIFA, Israel — Experiencing the diversity of the human family can be humbling, as Bahá’ís attending their recent international convention learned.

One can meet an industrialist from Italy, a civil engineer from Barbados, and a presidential advisor from South Africa – but realize that a 25-year-old student from South America is equally impressive with her knowledge of how to organize classes for children and youth.

Or discover that the Ph.D. who works with the international research agency speaks two languages, but the woman who owns a small business in Cameroon speaks five.

A thousand delegates from more than 150 countries came to Haifa for the 10th International Bahá’í Convention, and at least some participants say the diversity was unprecedented.

Gregory C. Dahl, who formerly worked at the International Monetary Fund and has attended many U.N.-related meetings, had never seen anything like it.

“This is easily the most diverse gathering of people on the planet,” he said of the convention. He compared it to a U.N. meeting but said the diversity at the Baha’i gathering came not just from the different nationalities but from the backgrounds of the participants.

Dr. Ibrahim Amoussa was a delegate from Gabon. Each country was represented by the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of that nation. Slideshow
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Dr. Ibrahim Amoussa was a delegate from Gabon. Each country was represented by the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of that nation.

“At the United Nations, there are representatives from many countries, but not from so many different social, economic, and professional classes,” said Mr. Dahl, who attended the Baha’i convention as a delegate from Bulgaria. He noted that the others from Bulgaria included someone who works for a coal-mining company, another employed by an insurance company, a musician, and a secretary.

The purpose of the Bahá’í convention, held every five years, is to elect the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith. Delegates also consult about their experiences and concerns. The nine delegates from each nation are themselves the elected members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of their country.

Alan Smith of the Virgin Islands was attending his sixth International Bahá’í Convention and said he noticed a difference this year.

“It’s feeling far more international,” he said, attributing the change not to additional countries but to more diverse groups of delegates from within each country.

Among the delegates from Russia, for example, were two ethnic Russians; one Russian with Estonian ancestry; two individuals of Buryat-Mongolian ethnicity from Eastern Siberia; a Tatar, whose family background is Muslim; an Osetin woman from the Caucasus; and an American-born man descended from Russian Jews who is married to a Russian and lives in Siberia.

From the United States came a federal judge, a psychologist, a medical doctor, a corporate retirement plan manager, and an administrator who works with health-care issues for Native Americans. Some are white, some are black, and one is American Indian of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of the Sicangu Lakota.

From Albania came a police officer, a lawyer, a teacher, a secretary, some from the northern part of the country, some from the south.

From Venezuela came “younger” and “older” – three of the delegates were 25 years old, and two were in their 60s or older.

Daniel Woodard, an engineering student from Caracas, said he realized at the convention that not only is the Bahá’í community diverse but that it truly encompasses the whole world. He was even more heartened by the unified spirit, as Bahá’ís and others work together to create a better world.

“Despite the fact that there are now many of us, and we are so diverse, nobody is being left behind,” he said of the people he saw. “We are so intertwined that as we move forward, if someone falters or has difficulties, they will be sustained and helped by the others.”

More about the delegates to the International Bahá’í Convention:

  • The oldest delegate, from Niger, was 82. The youngest was a woman from Belarus who turned 21 last August and was elected to her National Assembly in a by-election in November. (The minimum age for election is 21.)
  • Delegates came from almost everywhere, from Greenland in the north to Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand in the south; from Kiribati just west of the international date line, around the world to Samoa just east of the date line. Those remote islands were balanced by delegates from the world’s great cities – London, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Buenos Aires.
  • Twelve delegates were 25 years old or younger.
  • English was the main language, and most participants apparently were comfortable with it because only about 320 participants requested earphones to listen to translation to Spanish, French, or Russian. (Convention organizers also noted that a small handful of people might not have been able to manage any of the four official languages and required one-on-one help with translation.)
  • More than 40 percent of the convention delegates were women.