For almost 36 years now the Baha’is have been coming to Waterford to hold their annual summer camp at Newtown School. The gathering is a hugely anticipated one in the calendar among their faithful, adults and children alike. They come to Waterford from all points of Ireland which now has 21 Local Spiritual Assemblies around which they organise their religious, social and family lives.

But their number frequently includes members of their faith from around the globe. Among the 400 at this year’s gathering are visitors from the UK, New Zealand, Israel, the US, Canada, Poland, The Czech Republic and others who would constitute about 25% of the group, the balance of 75% being Irish. They have always found Newtown and the people of Waterford generally most hospitable and welcoming, which has encouraged them to return here year after year over such a long time.

But who are they?

Even though they have a Spiritual Assembly in Waterford, most local people would only become aware of their existence and in a transient way as they pass Newtown School for a few weeks each summer, though in recent years the camps have been for a shorter duration. So it occurred to me that I should inquire further by meeting with some of their number to learn something of the origins and tenets of the Baha’i faith.

Some time ago, I met and spoke with Ann O’Sullivan, a warm, intelligent and lovely Limerick woman who clearly loves coming to Waterford for this annual camp. Not that I would have expected it, but there was nothing of the zealot about her. Rather an aura of serenity born out of a sense of loyalty and intelligent commitment to her faith which is central to her life and family. I got this sense of positive energy mixed with a friendly atmosphere among the folk gathered at the camp as I walked about.

Normal family groups on holiday but with a purpose which is built around a programme of devotional periods, classes, talks, workshops and the very popular meditation sessions and, of course, times to relax, play and pray as they regard any positive activity done well as a form of prayer.

Ab initio

But from whence did the Baha ‘is faith come, a faith that claims over 5 million followers and is established in almost every country and dependent territory in the world with more than 120,000 localities, surpassing every religion but Christianity in its geographic reach? Until I took time out to read some of their literature I was blindly unaware of their extent and unity of purpose. Their belief of unity in diversity is at the very core of their faith. This was a journey of discovery for me to satisfy my curiosity and perhaps that of my readers.

I learned that they have their origins in Iran in 1844 with a background in Islam though it has grown to be a definite independent religion just as Christianity grew from the Judean tradition. I am not a scholar of world religions but I understand that in the mid 19th century there was a widespread expectation among religious scholars of a “coming” of a manifestation of the Divine i.e. a new and independent Messenger from God in succession to Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Christ and Muhammad.

The Bahai’s believe that this came as a twin manifestation, firstly The Bab – analogous to John the Baptist as a precursor to Jesus Christ. This was to be a short ministry of nine years during which time he experienced imprisonment. Among those who were attracted by the new teaching, and despite the reality of persecution and deprivation, was a Persian nobleman named Baha’u’llah (pronounced Ba-howl-la), meaning Glory of God. In 1863, he declared himself to be the One who was promised, a Divine Messenger.

The Islamic rulers of Iran didn’t take kindly to these claims and talk of unity and equality and so the new leader was much imprisoned and the growing flock of believers were persecuted as they are to this very day in their founding country of Iran. The story of persecution is a familiar one when a movement emerges which is perceived as a threat to an established authority.

The earth is
but one country

That the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens is a central tenet/message of the Baha’is poster and I recall it on a poster at the gates of the school and, from what I have read, it indeed seems central to their philosophy which seems a worthy ideal. They believe that through historical processes the traditional barriers of race, class, creed and nation have steadily broken down and will eventually give birth to a universal civilization.

From where I’m standing we still have a long, long way to go to achieve anything like that ideal but at least, as they say, there is a nobility in the striving. They also place great emphasis on the elimination of all forms of prejudice, full equality between the sexes, elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth, universal education, the harmony of science and religion, a sustainable balance between nature and technology and, furthermore and critically, the essential oneness of the world’s great religions.

All this is very positive and seems relevant in our modern world, riven as it is by sectional and national conflicts driven by tribalism and racism. Their message seems to be a very positive one rather than negative, inclusive rather than exclusive, emphasising unity as opposed to divisions. Sounds good to me as an observer looking in and the world can only benefit from their benign beliefs and commitment.

Incidentally, a George Townsend, a Church of Ireland clergyman in Galway and later Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, first brought the ideas of the Baha’is faith to Ireland in 1901. The movement was well established by the 1950’s and today number well in excess of 600. I hope I have not been “too heavy” this week but, as they say, knowledge is no load and it is a good thing to deal with others with amity and consort with affection. We all gain in the end.

Failte romhaibh ar ais.