Baha'i faith: The emergence of a world community in Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal - Some regard it as the cutting edge in the organisation of human society. Others discard it as a sect. In a few countries it is considered a threat: its followers - mercilessly persecuted and discriminated against.

The Baha'i faith is a monotheistic religion and is considered to be the youngest of the independent religions of the world. It was founded in 1863 in Persia by Mirza Husain Ali, who later became known as Baha'u'llah, which, in Arabic, means 'glory of god'.

Baha'u'llah had been a leader in the Babist movement, which was started by a young Iranian who called himself the Bab. The Bab declared that a new divine messenger, following the line of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohamed would soon appear.

This proclamation was a challenge to the Muslim state in which he lived, and, ultimately led to his arrest. After the Bab's execution, Baha'u'llah was imprisoned in Tehran- where he experienced divine revelations- and wrote letters and books outlining his ideas for human harmony.

After his release, he begun a life in exile, and declared himself to be the new messenger of god- hence- the Baha'i faith was born. The core message of Baha'u'llahs teachings is that humanity is a single race, and that the moment has come for its unification in a global society, breaking the traditional barriers of race, gender, social class, creed and nation.

The religion is practised in most parts of the world, and of the approximately five million members claimed worldwide by the Baha'i authorities, seven to eight thousand live in Nepal - a relatively small figure in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population is Hindu and Buddhist.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is in Nepal is located in Shantinagar, Kathmandu. The two-storey building is surrounded by clean and well-kept gardens, and people from all faiths are welcome to visit.

As I entered the gates of the Baha'i Spiritual Assembly, I was led to the first floor of the building and invited to sit in one of the meeting rooms. An air of serenity filled the place.

It was large and tastefully decorated with bamboo furniture, white cushions and a white carpet, sported on the walls were pictures of the Baha'i Universal House of Justice, which is the world governing body and the epicentre of the Baha'i faith, in Haifa, Israel.

Just as I was flicking through some of the books on Baha'i teachings, Larry Robertson, Chairman of the centre, entered the room and greeted me with a smile and an amiable handshake.

Mr Robertson, aged 59, lives in Kathmandu with his Nepali wife. He first came to Nepal in 1973 after gaining a civil engineering degree in his native America, to work as a peace-corps volunteer, and fell in love with the country.

He wasn't a Baha'i when he first came to the Nepal but admits that the experience he gained during that time in the country played a pivotal role when choosing his spiritual path.

"I was a Christian when I first came to Nepal," he explains, "but mingling with people from other faiths gave me a different perspective on religion."

Mr Robertson believes their faith is well-established in Nepalese society and he also assures me that no discrimination has been shown against their members, although things were different in the past.

"Before 1990, Nepal had very strict laws about teaching other faiths, so we had to teach on a very personal basis and we couldn't run any activities."

"It was more individual, Baha'is telling other people, but after our temple was built in India, people became more aware about our faith."

"Some people dismiss our faith, accusing us of being a sect of Islam, but it is not true," he protests, "the same way, you can't say that Christianity is a sect of Judaism."

"One of the amazing things is that Nepalese people are very responsive. They pick up things fairly easy and they are now responding to the Baha'i faith."

However, he points out that despite being registered with the government, religious minorities in Nepal still encounter many hurdles to have their faiths recognised by the Nepalese authorities, often having to register as NGOs.

"At the moment, the only way to register, is as an NGO, not as a religious rganization, and that is one of the issues we're raising with the government for the new constitution."

As in any other religion, an important part of the Baha'i faith is to spread their message and to educate. This is mainly done via a process of reflection, planning and action.

Education takes a central role for the Baha'is and it is highly encouraged for everybody from a very young age, says Mr Robertson.

"We have devotional meetings where we invite friends and neighbours, and we organise children classes on moral education."

"We also have junior activities, it helps them develop a sense of who they are, to think more critically and to judge on whether things are right or wrong. It helps them to work on these issues as they reach puberty."

"For 15-year-olds and above, we have study circles - designed to develop our human resources."

Arguably, one of the most painful issues for the Baha'is, is the increasing discrimination and human rights violations they've been subjected to over the years at the hands of the theocratic regime in Iran, the birthplace of their faith.

A recent report published by the committee for the promotion and protection of human rights of the United Nations, expresses its deep concerns at serious ongoing and recurring human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in particular, attacks against Baha'is.

According to this report, there is increasing evidence of efforts by the state to identify, monitor and arbitrarily detain Baha'is, prevent members of the Baha'i faith from attending university and from sustaining themselves economically.

When I asked Mr Robertson for his opinion about the current situation on the Baha'is in Iran, he paused for a moment, held his palms aloft, and replied:" the Iranian government banned the administrative order, so we can't have priests."

"It is a very sensitive issue, and the Universal House of Justice is looking at it very closely. Many governments have voiced their concerns: the Netherlands, the UK and certainly the US."

"Every year the issue of human rights comes up in the UN, and the Baha'is is one of the groups mentioned as being persecuted for their religious faith. Seven Baha'i leaders were detained last year and faced serious charges without adequate or timely access to legal representation."

"Nepal used to vote against the UN resolution on the human rights situation in Iran, but we managed to convince the Nepalese government at least not to vote, just to abstain from it, and we're very thankful to them for that."

"But, you know, situations can change very quickly. Right now, the Nepalese and Iranian governments are working on a bilateral treaty of non-visas for nationals of both countries, so you never really know what might happen."

Mr Robertson's conversion from Christianity to the Baha'i faith is not an isolated case, but part of a wider trend.

Religion and philosophy, both, Eastern and Western, have never been more accessible to us than in our current global society, and, many people, who become disillusioned with their way of life, are embarking on a spiritual journey, seeking practical guidelines for a better form of living.

One such spiritual transformation happened to a Nepali, who became disenchanted with certain aspects of Hinduism, and converted to the Baha'i faith.

Mr Dhirga Vikram Shah assures me that his life has taken a positive turn after becoming a Baha'i. He is now the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is in Nepal.

The soft-spoken 58-year-old, converted to the Baha'i faith 25 years ago, he recalls:" I first heard about the Baha'i faith when I was working at the Ministry of Education. An American named David Walker, was at the time, the advisor for the Adult Education Program, he gave me the books, and searching for the truth, I became a Baha'i."

"My life has changed a lot," he adds, "before, as a Hindu, I used to drink, now as a Baha'i I don't. Before I was involved in politics, but now I'm not."

Baha'is are not allowed to become involved in politics as it is divisive, and anything that divides people, they have to stay away from.

"I follow the Baha'i principles: honesty, sincerity and truthfulness. I work towards the peace and unity of humankind."

"Also, in Nepal, there's a caste system, but I think we're all from the same root. I don't like the caste system. You see, God created us without a caste system, we're all from the same family," Mr Dirga smiles shyly.

The Nepalese constitution is about to be written, and religious and ethnic minorities, regardless of their size, need a pledge from the Nepalese government, to have a fair and equal representation on the new constitution.

As Mr Robertson pointed out, the Baha'i faith is peacefully coexisting with the other major religions in the country, but perhaps, without the same recognition.

Freedom of thought and religion takes a long time to build, and it has to be promoted, and defended with all our strength against every challenge.