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You can count the major world religions, those that extended their lifespan and geography and influence long past the passing of their Prophets, on two hands.
Here’s a short list: Hinduism, which has lasted for thousands of years; Judaism, the oldest of the Abrahamic Faiths; Buddhism, the largest religion from the global East; Zoroastrianism, which has receded recently but once thrived; Christianity, now the world’s largest and most widespread religion; Islam, now thirteen centuries old and still growing; and the Baha’i Faith, only a hundred and seventy years old but now the second-most widespread religion on Earth. Of course there are more Faiths than these—many more—but this group represents those that transcended their cultural and geographic origins, spread around the world and generated huge numbers of followers.
Each one of these religions has survived the test of time.
They have all spread beyond their point of origin. They have all developed institutions. They each have a rich written history. All of them have attracted millions of followers in diverse places and from varying cultures.
Together they count almost four-fifths of the world’s population as supporters, adherents and believers.
When their founders passed into the next world, often as a result of the violent opposition their radical teachings first generated among the prevailing cultures they appeared in, the Faiths they created typically struggled to stay alive. Persecuted, misunderstood, exiled, tortured and imprisoned, the early Jews and Buddhists and Christians and Muslims and Baha’is suffered tremendously and died in large numbers for their beliefs. Entire governments tried to exterminate them. Cast out of their societies, they wondered, in their weakest moments, if their new Faiths would make it.
That same dynamic happened when the founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, passed away a little more than a hundred years ago.
Baha’u’llah, repeatedly persecuted, exiled, jailed and tortured for his progressive teachings, died in 1892. Forced out of Persia by its government and successively banished to Baghdad in 1852; then from Baghdad to Constantinople in 1863; then to Adrianople (now Istanbul) in 1867; and finally to the prison-city of Acre (Akka) in Palestine (now Israel) later in 1867; Baha’u’llah ultimately spent forty years as a prisoner of conscience. He taught a new Faith with new, progressive principles: the independent investigation of truth, the unity of all religions, the oneness of God and humanity, the equality of men and women, the agreement of science and religion.
Those challenging ideas caused the Persian and Ottoman governments to subject Baha’u’llah to four decades of cruel and unusual punishment. Baha’u’llah underwent terrible suffering, not for any crime, but for promulgating the peaceful principles of a new Faith, which boldly challenged the orthodoxy and the power structure and the endemic corruption of the existing governmental, social and religious order.
The Baha’i teachings tell us that Baha’u’llah underwent this terrible treatment, like all the Prophets and Manifestations of God have undergone persecution, as a sacrifice for all humanity. Abdu’l-Baha said that Baha’u’llah:
…bore all these ordeals and calamities in order that our hearts might become enkindled and radiant, our spirits be glorified, our faults become virtues, our ignorance be transformed into knowledge; in order that we might attain the real fruits of humanity and acquire heavenly graces; in order that, although pilgrims upon earth, we should travel the road of the heavenly Kingdom, and, although needy and poor, we might receive the treasures of eternal life. For this has He borne these difficulties and sorrows. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 28.
Tragically, this same pattern of persecution, imprisonment and execution still exists for the Baha’is in Iran. Today a hundred thirty-six Baha’is, including infants and the elderly, are currently held in Iranian prisons for the sole crime of being Baha’is. That kind of persecution, however, can never deter strong inner religious convictions. Despite continuing government-sponsored campaigns aimed at Baha’is, and despite the passing of Baha’u’llah, the Baha’i Faith continues to grow, develop and prosper in every corner of the planet.
Baha’u’llah’s teachings emphasize peace, unity and harmony among all people. They have inspired millions around the world, and the Faith that Baha’u’llah revealed so long ago has joined the pantheon of the world’s major Faiths as a result.
Today Baha’is around the world gather to observe and commemorate the anniversary of the passing of Baha’u’llah. In those thousands of solemn and prayerful occasions, filled with meditative contemplation, Baha’is everywhere will reflect on the powerful teachings of this relatively new global Faith and remember the extreme sacrifices it required to bring its message of unity to humanity.
Baha’u’llah said “The best-beloved of all things in my sight is justice….” Baha’is and their friends will remember that powerful injunction when they gather to commemorate Baha’u’llah’s passing.
In memory of Baha’u’llah and to honor his revelation’s new teachings, Baha’is urge all humanity to advocate for those who suffer injustice.