a prayer for newtown

prayer vigil was held recently in the town of Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of a tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14th. Faith leaders gathered from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Bahá’í religions. President Obama addressed those gathered, and the entire world through a live broadcast, offering not only words of comfort and sympathy, but also words that cried out longingly for transformation: “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”

John Woodall, member of the Newtown Bahá’í community* who was present at the vigil, shared the following on Facebook over the weekend, perhaps echoing President Obama’s call for transformational change:

We are all quite overwhelmed and exhausted today and wonder how we can move forward. This is the time for grief as the grief is a proof of our love. So, we grieve openly in honor of the love of those lost. We have come in contact with our powerlessness over events. We had no control over this event. But, we have decisive control over our response which can be as life-affirming and noble as our heart can dare to reach. We all have this choice in life with the trials we face.

Mr. Woodall and his wife, Margo, offered a profoundly moving reading from the Bahá’í Writings at the vigil, sharing a letter written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to a mother who had lost her son.

The Woodalls have been asked, through their organization The Unity Project, to be a part of the response to the shootings by helping train youth mentors to help counsel younger kids, strengthen family and community bonds, and to help the town heal through large numbers of student inspired service projects. If you’re interested in helping the people of Newtown recover, you can check out The Unity Project on indiegogo—and check them out on Facebook if you’d like to know more.

See also: a few of my reflections on the Newtown tragedy.

* Although various reports have referred to Mr. Woodall as a “minister” or a “leader” of the Bahá’ís, the Bahá’í community has no clergy and its members do not act as priests.

5th baha’i national convention, vietnam

So Quynh and I were so busy with our big trip to Canada this spring (and all the attendant paperwork) that I completely forgot to post anything about the 5th National Convention of the Baha’is of Vietnam, which took place in Hanoi from 28-29 April, 2012. A lot of big things happened this time around, as this year is also the 20th anniversary of the Baha’i Faith in Hanoi. A number of people who helped established the Baha’i community of Hanoi attended, including Mrs. Zabine Van Ness, who was instrumental in enrolling the first Hanoian Baha’i. Blogger Gary Matthews (aka the Astonished Tamale) shares an account of the weekend’s events:

The new National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Vietnam, elected the day before at the annual national convention, was introduced. Among the members is Tahirih Hong Le (the only woman), daughter of Le Loc, a longtime friend of Zabine’s from the Old Days. Le Loc once served as chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of South Vietnam , and later as chairman of the NSA of unified Vietnam. […]

Baha’i Counselor George Soraya of Indonesia gave a rousing keynote speech. He emphasized Baha’i principles of obedience to government, peace, education, loyalty to government, the oneness of humanity, Baha’i non-participation in partisan politics, cooperation with government, non-violence, and obedience to government.

Another moving address was from a beautiful lady [Mrs. Tran Thi Bich] who was the second Hanoi Baha’i, having been enrolled 20 years ago by the first believer, Dr. Dao An Son. Sadly, the latter’s whereabouts are currently unknown, although the National Spiritual Assembly made every effort to find her during the lead-up to the celebration.

Mrs. Bich is very dear to Quynh and I; we spent a lot of time visiting with her and her family while we were in Hanoi getting to know each other. She’s very steadfast, strong and sharp. The Baha’is of Hanoi had to endure quite a lot in the past twenty years, especially before the community was officially recognized, so I can imagine her account must have been very moving.

Naturally, the media reported on the event, in their usual telegraphic style. Nhân Dân, the official “Voice of the Party” in Vietnam, had this to say about the proceedings in an English-language article:

More than 300 Baha’i dignitaries and followers across the country attended the fifth National Congress of the Vietnam Baha’i community in Hanoi.

The event was held on the occasion of Ridvan and the 20th anniversary of Hanoi’s Baha’i religion.

The Vietnam Baha’i community, which was recognized as a religious organisation by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs in 2008, has made great contributions to the development of the community and society. In recent years, the organisation has held many charitable activities and educated its followers on healthy spiritual values.

The Congress discussed and approved the directions on the community’s development from now until 2013, as well as elected the Baha’i Religious Spiritual Council in Vietnam for the 2012 – 2013 term.

What really struck me this year, of course, was how foreigners were welcomed into the proceedings. The video below shows Michael and Selena Orona and their three children performing two Baha’i songs at the 20th anniversary celebration for Hanoi’s Baha’i community. Michael is a diplomatic advisor on human rights and religious freedom with the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam.

Read more about past conventions in Vietnam, including last year’s in Phan Thiet, or the 3rd annual convention in Can Tho. I should really write something up about the 2nd annual convention that happened in Da Nang in 2009, but let’s just say I was very busy at the time…

4th baha’i national convention, vietnam

The Bahá’ís of Vietnam have just finished electing their new Spiritual Assembly at the National Convention in Phan Thiet, in the southern province of Binh Thuan. Quynh, Nu and Lam were there, along with 300 other Bahá’í friends. Quynh and Lam travelled on the overnight train from Da Nang, and friends came from as far away as Hanoi, all the way in the country’s north, to be there. Apparently it was amazing and a joy to attend. Quynh got to meet with several Vietnamese government representatives and members of Bahá’í institutions responsible for Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese press dutifully covered the convention too, with an item on the evening news (aired twice) and a number of news articles. I was surprised to see that the news was available online almost immediately after the convention, not only in Vietnamese (2, 3), but also in English and French. It looks as though one article was written by the Vietnam News Agency (VNA) and reprinted in a number of places, like the English press would do with AP or Reuters stories. Here’s the English article:

The Baha’i Community of Vietnam held its fourth National Congress in Phan Thiet city, the southern province of Binh Thuan, on April 23 and 24.

More than 300 Baha’i dignitaries and followers nationwide attended the congress, which also saw the participation of representatives of the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs and the Baha’i advisory board for Asia and the Board of Trustees of Huququ’llah for Southeast Asia.

The congress elected a nine-member religious council of the Baha’is of Vietnam for the 2011-2012 term.

It also set forth key tasks with the emphasis on mobilising Baha’is to live up to the motto of “living well in one’s life and one’s faith” and strengthening the nation’s great unity and solidarity with other religions.

Introduced into Vietnam in 1954, the Baha’i community now has more than 7,000 followers in 43 cities and provinces, mostly in central and southern regions.

The Baha’i Community of Vietnam has been recognised as a religious organisation by the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs in July 2008.

This article—a short one to be sure—isn’t a direct translation of the Vietnamese one, nor is the French article. The original reads something more like the article on the Can Tho convention in 2010 I blogged last year, with a lot more references to the Baha’i Faith being completely lawful and being in full accordance with regulations, etc. Despite not saying much, of course, the English article’s at least correct. I’m mostly just surprised they included the word “Huqúqu’lláh”.

Anyway, as soon as I get a little more time, I’ll take a stab at translating the Vietnamese and French articles for a little comparative coverage. Keep your eyes peeled. And if you’re interested in reading more articles like this, then why not follow me on Twitter and let me know?

Read about last year’s Baha’i National Convention in Can Tho.

3rd baha’i national convention, vietnam

A little behind, but as I mentioned a little while back, here’s an English translation of a Vietnamese news article on the third National Baha’i Convention in Can Tho, Vietnam, on May 2, 2010. I’ve added my own explanatory footnotes below. The article is a little off on a few facts, but overall it’s pretty good. This translation should at least give you a good idea of the general state of the Faith in Vietnam, and how it’s viewed by the institutions of society; in my opinion, it also offers an intriguing view of the perspective of modern Vietnam on religion in general. Thanks to Quynh and Google Translate for help with the translation.

On the morning of May 2nd, nearly 300 followers of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam attended the third annual National Convention of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam in Can Tho city.

The convention elected nine members of the religious council of the Baha’is of Vietnam for the 2010-2011 term and set out key tasks, following the motto “Sống tốt đời, đẹp đạo” (“Living well, in one’s life and in one’s faith”), aiming to improve the lives  of their brethren and benefit their country, to work effectively and mobilize their numbers to promote unity within the nation and solidarity with other religions.

Speaking at the conference, Mr. Đặng Tài Tính, Director of International Cooperation for the National Committee for Religious Department, stressed that the Government of Vietnam always implements a consistent policy to respect and ensure the freedom of belief and religion of the people, but that the people also have to comply with Vietnamese laws.

The charter of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam confirms in its principles and objectives that “activities shall be held in compliance with the laws of Vietnam, and shall uphold the spirit of harmony and unity of the nation and of religion, for the socio-economic development of the country…”, a crucial principle which serves to orient believers and grassroots organizations following the doctrine and laws of the Baha’i religion and the laws of Vietnam.

At the meeting, representatives of the Board of Counsellors[1] for Asia stated their appreciation to the Government of Vietnam’s facilitation for its help in facilitating the implementation of the activities of the Baha’i Community in Vietnam.

Mr. Nguyen Thuc, head of the interim board of representatives[2] of the Baha’i (religious) Community of Vietnam, said that since the recognition of its legal status, the entire community has entered a period of development and has achieved outstanding large-scale growth in individual religious practice, religious education, Holy day gatherings, the formation of committees and work groups and other administrative functioning.

In whichever locality Baha’i believers live and practice their religion, they largely have good relationships with government at all levels, allowing their activities to flourish in accordance with the Government’s policies on belief and religion and the provisions of law.

The Baha’i Faith came to Vietnam in 1954. The Baha’i religious community in Vietnam has almost 7,000 followers, faith activities in 43 provinces and cities, mainly concentrated in the central and southern regions.

The Baha’i community of Vietnam officially obtained its Certificate of Operation Registration[3] with the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs on February 28th, 2007.

After nearly a year of operation, in July 2008, the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs decided to recognize the religious organizations of the Baha’i religious community of Vietnam.

Up to now, the Baha’i Community of Vietnam has nearly 80 representatives of the Provisional Committee in the local level.

Footnotes:

The article mentions the rule of law many times over. I didn’t see the point of this until I started to read up on the history of religious groups in Vietnam, most of which seem to have had the unfortunate historical tendency to not only quarrel amongst themselves but try to overthrow governments. Some religious communities still display these tendencies, hence the constant reminders in modern government speech. Baha’is, though, are already enjoined by the core teachings of their Faith to show obedience and loyalty to their government, as the next paragraph states—a fact which apparently inspires some shock and awe in Vietnamese officials.

The term “Baha’i Community” is rendered consistently as “Baha’i religious community” in the original Vietnamese, but I’ve translated it as simply “Baha’i Community” for English readability.

1: The Continental Board of Counsellors, a high-level, non-clerical institution, purely advisory in character, with counterparts throughout the world; rendered as “Continental Advisory Committee” in the Vietnamese text.

2: The term translated here as “board of representatives” refers to the National Spiritual Assembly, a national body elected by the believers in a country to oversee the administrative affairs and spiritual health of the community.

3: I’m not really sure how this should be translated, but basically it’s a cerficate that shows they are officially registered as a religious community with the Government, and they are authorized to operate and conduct activities as such.

state of the 7 baha’i yaran

News about the trial of the 7 Baha’i Yaran (“friends”, often often referred to as the “7 Baha’i leaders” by the media) continues to float in from across the Internet, championed by the Baha’i International Community’s (BIC) World News Service and helped along by reliable and dedicated sources on Twitter.

Diane Ala’i, the BIC’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, called the trial “highly irregular, very similar to the show trials that have been held in Iran in recent months”, noting that “even the lawyers had to argue their way inside the court—lawyers who in any case had virtually no access to the accused for nearly two years”. A report from the group Human Rights Activists in Iran describes the first session of the trial, held January 12th, 2010:

The first session of the trial of the seven Baha’i leaders in Iran was held in Tehran today. The defendants were arrested over 20 months ago.

In today’s session, the families of the defendants were not allowed to witness the proceedings and their lawyers did not get the opportunity to address the court. The session concluded with the reading of the charges. The prosecutor of this case is an interrogator at the Information Bureau.

The first session was reportedly videotaped by the government. One of the defense attorneys confirmed that the trial will continue. The defense attorneys, however, have not been allowed to review parts of the government’s evidence and have not been allowed to meet with their clients. The charges leveled against the Baha’is over a year ago consisted of spying for foreign governments, acting against the security of the regime, insulting the sacred and “corrupting the earth” which is a charge punishable by death. According to government websites, the defendants have also been charged with collecting classified documents and holding meetings contrary to national security interests.

The website of the “Press Club”, which is a subsidiary of the Islamic Republic’s radio and television, carried a report of the court proceedings a day before trial even started on January 11. This premature report was removed from the website when it caused some embarrassment. This incident showed that the outcome of the trial is preordained and that the reports of the trial proceedings are actually written by government agents prior to the court session.

The court has already discredited these proceedings by blocking the lawyers’ access to the relevant files and preventing them from meeting with the defendants.

Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the lawyers defending the Yaran, stated in a Persian-language interview: “If justice is to be carried out and an impartial judge should investigate the charges leveled against my clients, the only verdict that could be reached is that of acquittal,” adding with regret that “Unfortunately, for some time now, the Judiciary has distanced itself from justice.”

World support for the wrongly detained Baha’is poured in on the date of the trial, with representatives from India, Brazil, the European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom denouncing Iran’s treatment of the Yaran and the fairness of their trial, and calling on it to respect the universal human right of all Iranian Baha’is to freedom of religious practice. Cherie Blair, wife of Tony Blair, ex-prime minister of the United Kingdom, accused the Iranian government of using the Baha’is as scapegoats in recent post-election protests, and claimed that Iran should be “shamed into respecting basic rights of the Baha’is”.

Canada’s Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon called “deplorable” the fact that the Yaran “were detained on the sole basis of their faith and have been denied a fair trial”, in between scathing criticisms of Iran’s refusal to repatriate the body of slain Montreal photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, killed in 2003 while in the custody of interrogators.

Human rights organization Amnesty International denounced what it called a “show trial” based on “spurious charges”, calling the 7 Yaran “prisoners of conscience, held solely on account of their beliefs or peaceful activities on behalf of the persecuted Baha’i community,” and called for them to be “immediately and unconditionally set free”.

loyalty to government: iran’s baha’is

According to Baha’u’llah, Baha’is “must behave towards the government of [their] country with loyalty, honesty and truthfulness”… why does Iran persist in accusing the Baha’is of crimes they cannot commit?

The Baha’is of Iran are currently facing a very dark situation; the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran cites a “fear of imminent executions” as Iranian media and government continue to scapegoat Baha’is for the recent unrest during the period of Ashura, a holy period for Shi’ite Muslims. Combine this with the awareness of an upcoming trial of seven prominent Baha’is, who bear charges such as “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities, and propaganda against the Islamic republic”, charges deemed “utterly baseless” by Diane Ala’i, the Baha’i International Community representative to the United Nations in Geneva. Maja Daruwala, director of the India-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, asserted that the trial was “designed to harass and intimidate” and amounts to “persecution” of the Baha’i community.

Learn more about Iran’s persecution of Baha’is.

In every country where any of this people reside, they must behave towards the government of that country with loyalty, honesty and truthfulness. This is that which hath been revealed at the behest of Him Who is the Ordainer, the Ancient of Days.

It is binding and incumbent upon the peoples of the world, one and all, to extend aid unto this momentous Cause which is come from the heaven of the Will of the ever-abiding God, that perchance the fire of animosity which blazeth in the hearts of some of the peoples of the earth may, through the living waters of divine wisdom and by virtue of heavenly counsels and exhortations, be quenched, and the light of unity and concord may shine forth and shed its radiance upon the world.