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Bahá’i faith celebrates 200th anniversary of birth of divine messenger Bahá’u’lláh

By Waveney Ann Moore
Patrick Norado (left), Thomas Alexander and Sepideh Eskandari talk after praying at the St. Petersburg Baha'i Center in St. Petersburg on Saturday. A group on Saturday gathered to study the teachings of the Baha'i faith.EVE EDELHEIT | Times

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Farah Khorsandian-Sanchez was born to Iranian parents in India, in a Bahá’í home. Her husband was born in Spain, grew up in Venezuela and is Catholic.

As a Bahá’í, Khorsandian-Sanchez doesn’t focus on differences — not of country, ethnicity, race, economic status or beliefs. She embraces her faith’s teachings, which profess to the "oneness of humankind," gender equality, eradication of prejudice and pursuit of world peace.

"We are first humans," the adjunct professor in the College of Education at the University of South Florida said. "I believe in the nobility of humanity. ...We are all created in God’s reflection."

The Bahá’í faith, founded in Iran, claims more than 5 million followers worldwide. Bahá’ís believe that God created all major religions, but that their Iranian-born founder, Bahá’u’lláh, is the most recent of divine messengers, following other emissaries such as Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus and the prophet Mohammed.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Bahá’u’lláh’s birth, an event that includes worldwide celebrations. In St. Petersburg, a proclamation recognizing the faith was read at City Hall on Oct. 12. In Tampa, weekend observations include dawn prayers, a devotional program and a screening of a new movie on Bahá’u’lláh.

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In a time of political and racial turmoil, mass shootings, deadly hurricanes and murmurings of nuclear war, Bahá’ís view their founder’s teachings as prescient and particularly relevant.

"We have the most beautiful writings that are so optimistic and give us a vision of the world that we can solve these problems," said Monique Stevens, a Spanish teacher at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover.

"While no one enjoys seeing others suffer, or seeing the deterioration of order and justice, it is something that the Bahá’í writings have explicitly foretold," said John Hatcher, professor emeritus in English Literature at the University of South Florida and editor of the Journal of Bahá’í Studies and the Wilfrid Laurier University Press Bahá’í Series.

Hatcher called these contemporary events "a foreshadowing of the transformation of what must come."

Bahá’ís believe the key to helping guide the world toward this era of peace is their supreme institution, the Universal House of Justice, at their World Center on Mount Carmel in Israel. But, said Hatcher, a former Methodist, Bahá’ís "aren’t just sitting around waiting for peace to happen."

They are working around the world in local communities, offering children’s classes, devotionals in their homes and collaborating with interfaith organizations and other like-minded groups, he said.

Laura Smith, 60, and her husband, Rob, who both play in the Florida Orchestra, hold devotional gatherings for friends and neighbors in their Tampa home.

"I usually pick out readings from different religions, and it’s a way to share with others the common foundation of all religions," said Smith, who discovered the Bahá’í faith in college. "After an event such as (the violent clashes in) Charlottesville, we might have readings about oneness, about justice, about unity, just dealing with difficulties."

The religion does not proselytize. Stevens, who is African-American and grew up in a Baptist family, went on a spiritual search that led her to the Bahá’í Temple in Wilmette, Ill.

"I got all kinds of literature and some things really impressed me — the equality of races, non-participation in partisan politics, justice, elimination of extreme wealth and poverty, only one religion and the harmony of science and religion," said Stevens, 51.

But for some, Bahá’í ideals fall short.

Sean Rayshel, an openly-gay, third generation Bahá’í who is planning a documentary about LGBT Bahá’ís, said he was asked to leave the faith after his same-sex marriage.

"Technically, you can be gay, but you have to be celibate and alone," said Rayshel, who lives in Palm Springs, Calif. "I think the Bahá’í faith is a beautiful religion, but I think it would be five times larger, if it were LGBT-accepting."

Hatcher said gays aren’t forbidden to be Bahá’ís. "But the Bahá’í teachings assert that sexual relationships are permitted only in the context of marriage, which according to Bahá’í writings, consist of a man and a woman," he said. "The laws regarding sex in the Bahá’í faith are very explicit."

The religion also forbids drug abuse and alcohol and while Bahá’ís are encouraged to vote their conscience, they can have no political affiliation.

From its beginnings in Iran, the faith has struggled for acceptance. Bahá’u’lláh, who came from a wealthy Persian family, was persecuted for his teachings and exiled from Iran in 1853. His predecessor, the Bab, was executed. In 1992, the Iranian government banned all formal Bahá’í activity, and in 2008, seven Bahá’í leaders were imprisoned. One of the seven was released on Sept. 18.

Sepideh Eskandari, 49, an immigration attorney in St. Petersburg, is among the Iranian Bahá’ís who sought asylum in the United States. She and her family settled in the Tampa Bay area in 1979. Last week, Eskandari was among the small group of Bahá’ís who attended the St. Petersburg city council meeting and accepted the proclamation.

Susan Jeffers, 50, a fashion photographer who lives in Seminole, also tells a story of escape. Her grandfather, a Bahá’í, was killed during Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Her father escaped to Iran, but left in 1965 for New York with his family when he sensed that they would not be safe.

Jeffers, whose husband, Michael, is one of the founders of Evos restaurants, holds spiritual gatherings at their home. Bahá’u’lláh, she said, offers "new social teachings, revolutionary teachings" for a fractured world.

According to the Bahá’í faith, the next divine messenger delivering more advanced teachings won’t appear for centuries.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.