BAHA'IS VIEW ALL RELIGIONS AS ONE Faith unifies other beliefs


One is an African-American insurance representative who lives in Laurel. Another is an Iranian-born associate professor of biochemistry in Baltimore. A third works as a pharmacist at a Safeway in Pasadena.

They have at least two things in common. They live in Howard County and are all members of one of the world's youngest and most widespread religions -- the Baha'i Faith.

There are more than 5 million Baha'is in 168 countries. As many as 100 followers live in Howard County.

Last night, the Baha'is of Howard County were to celebrate World Religion Day at the Oakland Mills Village Center. The program was to focus on the unity of world religions and include presentations and scripture readings from various faiths, including Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism.

"We believe spiritually all the religions are one," said Carolyn Alperin of Columbia, "and the Baha'i Faith is a unifying force."

The Baha'i Faith was founded in the 19th century in what was then Persia by a prophet named Baha'u'llah. Baha'u'llah said he was one in a long line of God's messengers that included Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad. He taught that all major religions spring from one source.

Since its establishment, the Baha'i Faith has drawn about 110,000 followers in the United States.

The religion and its tenets have broad appeal in a modern world marked by conflict. Baha'is believe global peace is attainable and view the world's races and ethnic groups as one family. The faith's principles include abolition of all forms of prejudice, equality of men and women, harmony of science and religion and elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty.

Some Howard County Baha'is were drawn to the faith because of its inclusive nature.

Mrs. Alperin, a pharmacist, was raised a Baptist and is married to a Jewish man. Neither wanted to convert to the other's faith. Then they discovered the Baha'is.

"To convert to the Baha'i Faith, we didn't have to give up everything we believed," Mrs. Alperin said. "It was a sense of adding on a new dimension to what we had rather than giving up or turning our backs on what we were taught all our lives."

Thom Thompson, a professor at Morgan State University, lived in Howard County in the 1970s and returns to the Baha'i community here about half a dozen times a year. The son of Methodist minister in Iowa, he was attracted by the way the faith accepted other religions instead of branding them false.

"I knew that that wasn't right, but I didn't have a means of resolving this question until Baha'u'llah stepped into the highway in front of me," he said.

But if all these religions are one, how come they say so many different things?

Baha'is believe that God's message is fundamentally the same, but varies with each prophet according to the needs of the time and culture. Mr. Thompson offered an example.

Jesus lived in a society where slavery was common. As far as anyone knows, he never spoke against it. Later, Baha'u'llah taught of the unity of all people.

"I don't see an inconsistency here," Mr. Thompson said. In Jesus' time, "the world couldn't bear getting rid of slavery, as widespread an institution as it was, or the economies of all the countries would have instantly collapsed."

The Baha'is have no clergy. They meet periodically in informal groups to discuss the faith and the writings of Baha'u'llah, which have been translated into more than 800 languages and dialects.

Each Friday, members in Howard County hold fireside chats at homes where speakers discuss aspects of the faith and apply them to modern life.

Fred Myers, a 60-year-old insurance representative, holds discussions in Laurel on everything from race relations to the relationship between humankind and God. Nasir Bashirelahi, a professor at the University of Maryland's dental school in Baltimore, holds his own weekly fireside chats at his home in Columbia. He was reared in Iran, where members of the faith are routinely persecuted.

The message of abolishing prejudice has great resonance for him and other Baha'is. They see it as the key to solving many of the world's problems.

"We don't believe in separating people into races and nationalities because we're all the same under the skin," Mrs. Alperin said. "World peace is going to happen."

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