world interfaith harmony week in cornwall

World Religion Day isn’t the only holiday that promotes interreligious harmony: since 2010, the world has also celebrated World Interfaith Harmony Week, an event whose purpose is “to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation among people” of all faiths. It falls on the first week of February, shortly after World Religion Day. The Canadian Bahá’í News Service just posted nationwide highlights of Bahá’í participation in World Interfaith Harmony Week, and I thought I’d highlight this interesting tidbit from Cornwall, a town not too far from Ottawa:

In Cornwall on the St. Lawrence River in Ontario, the event took place in Knox–St. Paul’s United Church, organized by the Cornwall Interfaith Partnership, and was attended by approximately 90 people from many different backgrounds.

The event began with socializing over a meal prepared and donated by a Partnership member and his family, and was followed by the screening of a video about a “Charter for Compassion” project that aims “to advance the spirit and practice of the Golden Rule.” A workshop then explored three questions to help participants examine and eliminate the roots of inter-religious conflict: 1) Did you learn something in the film that surprised you?; 2) Are there beliefs or practices about other groups that make you feel uncomfortable?; and 3) Do you have any idea where these feelings come from – that is, where do you get information or how are your assumptions formed?

The 10 core members of the Cornwall Interfaith Partnership come from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Bahá’í and unaffiliated backgrounds, and almost all have considerable experience in small-group facilitation; other associated members belong to the Hindu and Sikh communities. In its functioning, the Partnership tries to model the values of unity, respect and community action that it seeks to promote in the wider community.

Reverend Donald Wachenschwanz, the minister of the church hosting the event, said that the gathering was “awesome,” with many participants insisting that such events should be held in Cornwall every three months out of a deep yearning to see the various seemingly antagonistic religious communities come together in harmony and friendship.

I love that last part especially, about insisting that these events should be held every three months, out of a yearning to see different religious communities come together. Sounds like a step in the right direction—in fact, gatherings to promote harmony between people of different religions and nations should be happening every month, even every week. There are so many opportunities for antagonism and hatred in the world. It just makes sense to take every chance we can to create opportunities for fellowship and love.

abdu’l-bahá’s visit to montreal

at the door of the shrine‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, arrived in the city of Montreal after an eleven-hour journey from Boston, on the night of August 30th, 1912. His business, far from any material pursuits, was to spread His Father’s message of universal peace, brotherhood and unity. Settling in to the home of Mr. William Sutherland Maxwell and Mrs. May Maxwell, nestled snugly onto the side of Mount Royal, he declared, “This is my home.” A hundred years later, this house is now regarded as a national Shrine, a grace conferred onto the Canadian Bahá’í community that stands unequalled among most of its sister communities worldwide. Montreal was the only Canadian city he visited during his 239-day-long journey, bestowing a priceless spiritual heritage to that city and to the country of Canada—and, at the same time, making an important and profound social statement.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had ample reason to come to Montreal: the Maxwell family, with whom he had already been acquainted many years earlier and who would develop a unique and special relationship to the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, had succeeded in raising up a small but active Bahá’í group there, and it was at their invitation that he made the long trek north from Boston rather than simply cutting across the west on his way to California. But beyond being a gracious visit to long-time friends, his visit to Montreal was also, in a way, an example to the early Canadian believers, many of whom came from Anglophone and Protestant backgrounds, and who carried with them, to varying degrees, the prejudices prevailing in society regarding the French Catholics of Quebec. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, known by the Bahá’ís as the Perfect Exemplar, was no stranger to making examples when there were lessons to be learned, especially when it came to social conventions. He it was who insisted on having Louis Gregory, a black American lawyer, sit next to him at the head of the table at a luncheon in Washington, D.C.—an unthinkable act in a society for which racial segregation was just another fact of life.

It can safely be said that racism is the most challenging issue confronting America, as was stated clearly in a 1991 statement by the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of America, The Vision of Race Unity. Canada’s challenges, though slightly more nuanced, are perhaps just as serious. Broadly, it can be said that intercultural prejudice—a combination of racism, nationalistic sentiment and economic and religious prejudice—is Canada’s most challenging issue. This issue was directly raised by the Universal House of Justice in a message to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, dated 5 September 1999. As in many parts of the world, the letter explained, Canada is “affected by various social divisions… In Canada’s case, such issues tend to be cultural in nature, particularly those separating peoples of Native and European origin or those between Canadian of French- and English-speaking backgrounds.” These issues, the Universal House of Justice affirmed, are rooted in “long-standing conflicts that weaken the country’s basic social fabric.” Continue reading

canada: parliamentary debate on iran

On Monday night, the Canadian House of Commons hosted a debate on the state of human rights of Iran, mentioning the persecuted Baha’i community many times. Of particular note is the testimony of David Sweet (Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale), who read the personal stories of each of the seven jailed Baha’i leaders (“Yaran”)—who are entering their fifth year of unjust imprisonment—for the parliamentary record. Here are a few more choice quotes:

For years, this peaceful community has been targeted by the Iranian authorities and subjected to discrimination and detention. Baha’i leaders have been arrested and imprisoned for practising their faith. Iranian officials have also made statements to try to link the Baha’i to the political unrest in that country. These are trumped-up accusations and a cause of concern for the safety and well-being of those unjustly detained in Iran. In fact, today, on the fourth anniversary of the arbitrary arrests and detention of several Iranian Baha’i community leaders, we are particularly reminded of the ongoing, persistent and pervasive prosecution of religious minorities. (Deepak Obhrai, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs)

The plight of the Baha’i in Iran offers a looking glass into the plight of human rights in Iran in general, and the criminalization of innocence, as finds expression in the criminalization and targeting of Iran’s largest religious minority in particular. (Irwin Cotler, Mount Royal)

Bahá’ís are routinely executed. Others are arrested arbitrarily with no clear reason for it. Worst of all, this is done with the full support of the country’s judicial, administrative and law enforcement systems. The mullahs of Iran have long regarded the Bahá’í faith almost as an enemy of Islam. According to a report from Amnesty International, at the end of January 2012, over 80 Bahá’ís were held because of their beliefs. (Wayne Marston, Hamilton East—Stoney Creek)

From my familiarity with Baha’i people in my riding, these people promote peace wherever they are. It is just absolutely incomprehensible that any regime would target them as enemies. (John Weston, West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country)

You can take a moment to read through the debate on your own, or browse through highlights mentioning the Baha’is (PDF).

Update: The Baha’i World News Service and the Canadian Baha’i News Service are also carrying this story.

baha’i centre in vanier newspaper

Via @DASLucas on twitter, here’s the text of a nice little article about the Ottawa Baha’i Centre written by Ruby Pratka in a local newspaper, Perspectives Vanier (see the original front-page article in the PDF version of the paper). It begins by mentioning the Centre, which is located at the edge of Ottawa’s east-central Vanier borough, and quickly goes on to give an overview of the Baha’i Faith through the voices of two representatives of the Ottawa community. It even ends off with a mention about junior youth groups and other core activities organized by the Ottawa Baha’i community. Not an in-depth article, but a great front-page teaser that will undoubtedly help to answer a few questions—and raise even more—for curious locals who may have wondered about that building on MacArthur Avenue.

Baha’i Centre of Ottawa in Vanier since 2007
by Ruby Pratka

Heather Harvey and Ayafor Ayafor want to build a better world. And they believe that a better world starts in the front room of a former Mexican restaurant on McArthur Avenue.

Ayafor and Harvey are members of the Baha’i faith, a religious community that they say has about 1000 adherents in Ottawa and about 5 million scattered across the world. The Baha’i presence in Ottawa dates from 1948, says Harvey.

“We’ve gone from nine in 1948 to over 1000 now,” she says. The Baha’i Centre of Ottawa has been in Vanier since 2007.

The Baha’i faith was founded about 150 years ago in Iran, by a spiritual leader who believed he was the next in a series of prophets serving the same God. Baha’is consider Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad to be prophets as well. There is no clergy, only a democratically elected ‘spiritual assembly’ in each area with a Baha’i presence. The faith has since spread worldwide; according to the Centre for Faith in the Media it is the second most geographically widespread faith after Christianity. Baha’is, Harvey explains, respect the texts of all major religions and believe in the “unity of God” across world religions.

“At its basis there is a commonality to what our relationship is with God…and to life after death,” says Harvey.

“One of our fundamental principles is the idea of the oneness of mankind,” says Ayafor, who was born in Cameroon and raised a Christian. “Fundamentally we are like cells of a body; we’re evolving. The writings are there to bring unity in the world, but Baha’is don’t know how that is going to happen.”

Harvey and Ayafor say they believe that it is impossible to separate science and religion, and that world peace is inevitable. They also believe in the importance of community service.

“To work in the service of humanity is highly looked upon,” says Harvey.

To that end, she says, the centre holds youth study groups for teenagers to figure out how to best serve their community. “It’s all about ‘what can I do tomorrow?’,” Harvey says. “The reality of what you can do varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. In those study circles things emerge, like a literacy campaign or a health campaign. . Our junior youth groups clean the parks; simple things can be done and something leads into something else. It’s very important for youth–and everyone–to believe they have a purpose.”

In addition to the youth groups, the centre holds devotional meetings where attendees study the texts of all major religions, children’s classes, and summer day camps. And anyone is welcome to come to the centre and have a look around. These programs are open “to all people, whether Baha’is or not,” says Harvey. “We are not an inward-looking community.”

baha’i contributions to haiti

Canadian Baha’is who are interested in making donations to the Haitian Baha’i National Community to help contribute towards relief efforts there should be pleased to hear that online contributions are possible, using the Canadian National Baha’i Fund website,

The news, found in a recent communication from the Canadian National Assembly to an individual believer, goes like this:

…it is possible to contribute towards relief efforts in Haiti, through the Bahá’í International Fund. As such, you may make your online contribution to the International Fund. Once you have completed the contribution, it would be necessary that you reply to the automated contribution confirmation email, indicating your desire with respect to what portion (or all) that you wish to be directed towards the Haitian relief efforts. Without your follow-up email, the contribution would automatically be allocated to the general International Fund, so please be sure to let us know, in order that we may manually redirect the specific earmark.

If you’re a Canadian Baha’i, it doesn’t take long to register to contribute to the Fund online. Since only Baha’is are eligible to contribute the Baha’i Fund, this can be an important way of helping the Haitian Baha’i Community in its intense, grassroots efforts to rebuild its community and its nation after the recent earthquake, especially in ways that will bring about lasting change based on a strong moral and ethical foundation that engages members of the community as the protagonists of their own development—or redevelopment.

recent teaching team writeup

The following post is based on an email I sent around to the teaching team I’m working with here in a neighbourhood of Ottawa; my main path of service so far has been teaching a children’s class open to the whole neighbourhood.

I arrived at the Vietnamese Centre around 10:30am, and they were still waiting for chairs to fill up (apparently the customs of punctuality I observed while in Vietnam carry over to the overseas Vietnamese as well). The morning crowd was full of older Vietnamese gentlemen and ladies, and perhaps through a bit of shyness—and a desire not to greet elders incorrectly, with my broken Vietnamese—I didn’t break out into greetings and conversation with them all. Instead I listened with bemusement, being able to pick out about 15% of what people were saying. The morning presentation was given in English by a Registered Nurse on Pandemic H1N1, and included lots of great flu-prevention tips. The Centre’s director translated everything into Vietnamese. At the end, the speaker was given a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the Centre and its community—such a nice gesture—and a photo was taken with all present.

By the end of the H1N1 talk, it was clear that the crowd had swelled to about twice its original size, including a few younger folks, and still almost 100% Vietnamese. The next speaker followed after a short break: ethnically Vietnamese, but raised in France and married to an Israeli gentlemen, she came to talk about the Vietnamese community in Israel (of all places). In fact, it gave me an interesting insight into Ottawa’s own Vietnamese community, and the difference between “mainland” and “overseas” Vietnamese—a mainly political difference, brought on by the after-effects of the Vietnam War. This presentation continued until about 1:00pm, at which point we stopped for lunch. This is when it got really interesting—with four of us present from our Chinatown teaching team, we had a lot of conversations with many different people and covered a lot of ground.

I spoke to a really nice Vietnamese lady who asked about my recent trip to Vietnam and the sort of activities I took part in while I was over there. I explained to her about the core activities, and linked my time spent serving in Vietnam to our efforts here at the Centre. She asked me directly whether I was interested in offering English classes to members of the community, specifically newly arrived Vietnamese immigrants who had been living in the Philippines. I told her about the English Corner initiative put on by members of the Baha’i community and she seemed very interested; I told her I would follow up with my contacts to see if we could offer something similar for this community. Maybe it’s time for me (or one of us, at any rate) to learn how to be an English Corner facilitator?

In short, lunch was awesome. I felt like we accomplished more in that hour than we had since the beginning of the project, in terms of making contacts and solidifying our foothold within the community.

For the story of what happened during the children’s class, visit my children’s class blog.