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May 20, 2004

Ottawa Bahá'ís hope to foster understanding, tolerance with interfaith gatherings
Ottawa's Baha'i community is, to borrow a phrase, thinking globally and acting locally. Soon, the Bahai's Ottawa Spiritual Assembly will be hosting an interfaith gathering at the Elmvale Acres library to help spread the faith's message of unity and understanding.

Jihan Tewfik says the gatherings, which began last December and are held on the first Monday of each month, are meant to highlight what the world's religions have in common.

"It's interfaith, so people from all religions can come," she says. "We have the holy books of all the religions there. There are also prayers; Baha'i prayers, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist; whoever is there. This is a way to bring people together and see that, really, all religions are basically one and are from God. So this eliminates prejudice and hate and all the strife that's been caused by different religions and different races."
After 90 minutes of discussion, participants are invited to informally socialize.

Ms. Tewfik was born into the faith, but says Baha'i draws members from across the spectrum. "There's people from all religions, different backgrounds; even people with no religion, people who didn't believe in God."

Ottawa's Baha'i community has no local headquarters, and currently rents space as it is needed. Members used to meet in individuals' homes but with membership now around 1,000, that's difficult to do. Plans are in the works to have a physical space in the next two years, Ms. Tewfik says.

Aside from the monthly interfaith gathering, members meet every 19 days for the 19 Day Feast. "It's not literally a feast," she explains, "but participants discuss world and local events and end meetings with socializing."

Niels Hansen-Trip, vice- chair ofOttawa Spiritual Assembly, says the concept of interfaith gatherings is not new in the Baha'i movement. "It's just more recently, in the last couple of years, people are being encouraged to do this as part of their regular spiritual development."

That direction came from Baha'i's international body, the Universal House of Justice, based in Haifa, Isreal.

There is no clergy in Baha'i, rather an elected administrative order. Below the Universal House of Justice are national and local spiritual assemblies, with each having nine members. That structure is meant to reflect the Baha'i philosophy that collective decision-making is better suited to just governance.

In the local and national election processes, all adult Baha'i are candidates, though campaigning is forbidden. Each voter marks a ballot with the names of the nine they feel are best suited to lead.

"It's like a plurality, not a majority," Mr. Hansen-Trip explains. "The persons receiving the highest numbers of votes form the spiritual assembly."

From there, assembly members select who will serve more specific positions such as chair and vice-chair. Though the assembly's decisions are binding on the larger community, they are understood to hold no authority outside of meetings.

The gathering seems especially timely in light of the escalation of the Isreali-Palestinian conflict following the assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Mr. Hansen-Trip says the Baha'i has always taken an international view. The organization has consultative status at the United Nations, where representatives are engaged in an ongoing effort to ultimately unify such conflicting groups.

"The Baha'i community has been sharing its teachings with the United Nations and has kind of been trying to influence the peaceful development of, essentially, a world government. In order to achieve that, what's required are tolerance and understanding at all levels."

The gathering is held simultaneously at the Carlingwood Library (Woodroffe Ave. at Saville Row).

Baha'i is a relatively recent movement, founded in the 1800s in the midst of that era's millennial anxiety, a young Persian man named Siyyid 'Ali- Muhammad took the name Báb - meaning 'gate,' or 'door' - and proclaimed that a new, divine messenger would soon appear. Persian religious authorities of the time executed many of the Báb's followers, ultimately killing the Báb himself in 1850.

"So this eliminates prejudice and hate... that's been caused by different religions and different races."

Printed in the Alta Vista News May 20, 2004

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