world religion day in vietnam

In reading through the storied past of the Vietnamese Bahá’í community, I’ve been particularly impressed by its interfaith work. It seems evident that no other community worked more tirelessly for interreligious understanding during the war years than did the Bahá’ís. One of the early contributions to this work was the organization of national and local commemorations of World Religion Day, an interfaith observance, initiated in America in 1950 and thereafter celebrated worldwide, on the third Sunday in January each year. Its purpose is now as it was then: to call attention to the essential harmony of the spiritual principles underlying the world’s religions, and to emphasize the role of religion as a unifying force for humanity. Observed for over a decade prior to the end of the Vietnam War, it became, according to observers, “by far the most important inter-faith event in Vietnam”.

The first observance of World Religion Day, or Ngày tôn giáo Hoàn c?u, in Vietnam took place on January 21st, 1962, at the Bahá’í Centre at 193/1C Cong Ly Street, Saigon. “For the first time in Viet Nam,” the papers announced, “representatives of seven of the world’s religions will meet to discuss ‘the fundamental oneness of religion’ on the 13th annual World Religion Day…” Representatives of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity (Baptist), Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and the Bahá’í Faith were in attendance, and addressed the crowd regarding the fundamental tenets and principles of each of their religions. “We are for a world where every one will see his neighbour as his own brother, and we are working toward the day when affection will make the boundaries between states useless,” the Bahá’í representative, Nguyen Ke Tong, declared. His words must have struck a chord with the listeners, as Vietnam itself was at the time bisected by one of these boundaries, one that had torn families apart and turned brothers, cousins and friends against each other, as they separated into North and South.

The observance of World Religion Day provided a much-needed forum for interreligious dialogue to address the enmity that had developed between the country’s Buddhist and Catholic communities as a result of the prejudicial policies of South Vietnamese President Ngô ?ình Di?m. Hoping to address this growing conflict, the Bahá’í speaker at World Religion Day in January 1963 publically appealed to the leaders of Vietnam’s faith communities to establish an Interfaith Council that would work towards unity, reconciliation, and the protection of the rights of all religious communities in Vietnam. The need for such an institution was undeniable, but the injustices perpetrated by Di?m’s government against the Buddhist community—forced conversions, looting, shelling and demolition of pagodas—had become too great to bear. When a rarely enforced law was invoked to prohibit Buddhists in the city of Hu? from flying flags on Buddha’s birthday in May 1963, protests broke out, which were met with live fire from the police and army. The Buddhist Crisis broke out, which would end six months later in a military coup and Di?m’s assassination.

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global concern rises for baha’is in iran

Things have not improved for the long-suffering Bahá’í community in Iran. In fact, it seems as though the persecution to which they’ve been subjected has increased in recent years. Anthony Vance, Director of Public Affairs for the Bahá’ís of the United States, recently summarized the situation, stating that

“[T]he number of Bahá’ís in prison currently stands at 116. It has more than doubled since the beginning of 2011 when the number was 56. This number includes not only the seven-person, former leadership group but also educators and administrators of the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, the community’s informal solution to higher education from which Bahá’í youth have been barred for over 30 years, as well as Bahá’ís in Semnan, a town especially targeted by the government of Iran for severe persecution of Bahá’ís.”

The one source of good news seems to be the sustained international reaction condemning Iran for its treatment of Iranian Bahá’ís. After passing its third committee in November, a resolution decrying Iran’s “serious ongoing and recurring” human rights violations was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly just before the holidays, the 25th such resolution adopted on Iran’s human rights violations since 1985.

“This vote signals loud and clear the international community’s refusal to accept Iran’s ongoing and intensifying repression of its own people – or the government’s claims that such violations do not take place,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations.

“The list of abuses outlined in this resolution is long and cruel. Overall, the picture it paints is of a government that is so afraid of its own people that it cannot tolerate anyone who holds a viewpoint that is different from its own repressive ideology.”

“For the Baha’is, there has been persistent and worsening persecution at the hands of the government and its agents,” she observed.

The United Nations resolution was soon echoed by the United States House of Representatives, which passed a resolution on January 1st specifically “condemning the government of Iran for its state-sponsored persecution of its Bahá’í minority and its continued violation of the International Covenants on Human Rights.” Kenneth E. Bowers, Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, outlined the importance of the resolution, saying, “The Bahá’í community is encouraged by the emphasis the U.S. Congress has placed on the human rights abuses in Iran… We are convinced that this continued international pressure has kept the situation for the Bahá’ís in Iran from getting much worse.”

Nor have the United States been the only country voicing their protests at Iran’s continued pattern of repression and persecution. As in previous years, Canada was the main sponsor of this year’s resolution condemning Iran’s human rights violations. Academics, artists, media personalities and human rights supporters across the globe, including Brazil, Hungary, Slovakia, India and Australia, have all made the news in recent months by speaking out against the repression of Bahá’ís and other minorities in Iran, adding one voice after another to an ever-loudening chorus shouting in defense of human dignity.

Read more about Iran’s persecution of its Bahá’í minority.

“of the increase of his government and peace”

Quote

And the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.

Isaiah 9:6-7