'Suicide is always a tragedy'

Dr Kelly's conversion to the Bahai faith four years before his suicide has catapulted a previously obscure religion into the media spotlight. Now some adherents, frustrated by speculation that the religion's stance on suicide might have played a part in Kelly's death, argue that their beliefs are being misrepresented.

"Dr Kelly was very active in Bahai at the local level," recalled Barney Leith, the Secretary of the Bahai National Spiritual Assembly. "What he found in the Bahai faith was spiritual sustenance from praying with others."

Kelly discovered the Bahai faith in 1999 while working for the UN in New York, and on his return to Oxfordshire was welcomed into a small but active Bahai community. Dr Kelly became treasurer of the Abingdon branch, which was involved in a number of educational and charity projects, including fundraising for an orphanage in Honduras.

"We as Bahai will always love and respect Dr Kelly," Mr Leith said. "I knew him, although not very well, and I always found him to be an honourable man and a man of integrity."

According to Bahai scriptures, a man who takes his own life "will be immersed in the ocean of pardon and forgiveness and will become the recipient of bounty and favour." The phrase has been widely quoted in the past week as evidence that the religion supports suicide, but Bahai followers are keen to point to other passages that, they say, make it clear "the soul is a precious gift for us from God".

Mr Leith called claims in the tabloid press that their faith supports suicide "off the wall" and "really extraordinary", saying: "We do not in any way, shape or form condone suicide. Suicide is always a tragedy, and there's no doubt about that," he said. But, he explained, the texts must be taken in the context of the Bahai view of the afterlife. Bahais do not believe in hell, and say everyone has the opportunity for redemption. In any case, Mr Leith insisted: "We still don't know for sure whether Dr Kelly did kill himself."

He confirmed that Bahais were discussing funeral plans with Dr Kelly's family. "Bahais locally are in touch with the family and are offering whatever support they can to Mrs Kelly," he said. However, he denied that the family, who are members of the Church of England, would come under any pressure to give Dr Kelly a Bahai funeral.

"We're working very closely with the family to have a funeral in accordance with the family's needs and Dr Kelly's life," he said.

The beginnings of Bahai

The Bahai faith is one of the youngest world religions, established in Persia in the mid-19th century. Mirza Ali Mohammed, a young Persian businessman, declared himself the Bab ('gate'), a link to God equal to the prophet Mohammed.

Neither violent clashes with the Persian Shah's Islamic government, nor the Bab's eventual execution by firing squad, could crush the new religion. His successor took the title Baha'u'llah ('Glory to God') and spent the next 40 years in exile in Israel, where the religion is now based.

Despite his exile he developed a strong following, and his supporters became the first Bahais. It is from his teachings, as interpreted by his son Abdu'l-Baha, that the modern Bahai faith derives.

Bahai has faced a century and a half of persecution, notably in Iran, where hundreds of thousands of Bahais have been martyred and where Bahais are still considered "unprotected infidels" and denied legal, property or employment rights. Of the 6000 Bahais in the UK, up to two-fifths are of Iranian descent.

The religion flourished during the civil rights boom of the 1960s and 1970s, and now claims up to five million followers, although some independent researchers set the figure somewhat lower.

Bahai beliefs

Bahais believe that people receive only the spiritual guidance they are ready for. Other prophets, from Buddha to Christ, are seen as messengers from God, but are overshadowed by the message of Baha'u'llah.

Bahai's principles are strikingly liberal, considering they date from the Victorian era and have not been updated since, promoting racial and gender equality, redistribution of wealth, universal democracy and education for all. But alcohol and drugs are banned. And like other religions it struggles with modern attitudes to sexuality. Physical intimacy (including kissing) before marriage, active homosexuality and adultery are all banned.

Modern followers maintain close ties with the United Nations and work for world peace and unity. "The key value we work for is that humankind is a single race with a single destiny," said Mr Leith. Nonetheless, Mr Leith said, "Baha'u'llah strongly promoted the idea of collective security. We're not pacifists - you have to work for justice."

The Bahai scriptures even seem to condone pre-emptive war in places, saying that "a conquest can be a praiseworthy thing, and there are times when war becomes the powerful basis of peace". However, Bahais shy away from expressing direct opinions on the conflict in Iraq. "We are political with a small p," a spokeswoman explained. "We vote and participate in government, but we don't get involved in partisan politics. We find it very divisive."

How to be Bahai

Although Bahais elect national leaders they have no official priesthood. Services are usually held in followers' homes, although local groups join together to rent halls for special occasions.

The main festival is a feast held every 19 days. Services, led by members of the congregation, begin with prayer, music and song, progress to a discussion of community affairs and finish with a party or social gathering. As important as the services are the followers' charity activities. "Work and service are equivalent to worship," Mr Leith said. "Our faith has to bear some fruit and do some good in the world."

British followers make voluntary donations to fund the national organisation's three salaried officials, and also pay a "Right of God" charity tithe of 19% on their surplus earnings "as a way of cleansing their wealth".

"It's done without anybody coming round rapping on the door," said Mr Leith. "It's a matter of personal conscience, but we regard it as a very important thing."

British Bahais help to fund and manage local and global educational initiatives, including schools and grassroots campaigns in Nepal and India. "The Bahai are running projects all over the world, open to everybody, empowering people to run their own lives," said Mr Leith. "The world is full of differences, and we believe the world needs people to work to bring others together," he said.

Not a cult

Paradoxically, despite their liberal scriptures, Bahai has been accused of fundamentalism and extremism, especially in the US, where ex-Bahai Karen Bacquet claims the belief in unity led to "severe limits" being placed on followers' freedom of expression. "It would be wrong to regard the Bahai faith entirely as a cult," she writes, but it "can perhaps be called cult-like".

A spokeswoman for the Bahais of the UK strongly rejected such claims, saying: "We are nothing like a cult... We are recognised as one of the nine major religions in the UK; there is nobody of legitimacy who would call us a cult."

Despite their efforts to avoid dissent, Bahai has been troubled by a number of splinter groups, mostly American. Members of the largest recently said the September 11 attacks were divine punishment for the sins of mainstream Bahais and that war in Iraq marked the beginning of the Apocalypse.