How my religion works

How Bahá’ís worship, how the religion is structured and who wields power

We don’t have any priests or ministers in the Bahá’í Faith. We are responsible for our own spiritual lives. Each morning when I get up I read a passage from the Bahá’í scriptures (these comprise the writings of the Báb and of Bahá’u’lláh, together with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s interpretations of his Father’s teachings. The passage can be as long or as short as I want. And I recite some of the beautiful prayers given us by the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
During the day I’ll say one of our obligatory prayers. I’ve three to chose from: a short one to be said between noon and sunset; a medium one to be recited three times in the day; or a long prayer that is said with various prostrations and hand movements at any time in the day.
Prayer and the reading the Bahá’í scriptures is the responsibility of each individual Bahá’í. No one is going to ask us whether we’ve done these things.

Another personal responsibility is observance of the Bahá’í month of fasting from 2 to 20 March. We don’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset during those days – but we are exempted if we’re ill or travelling or pregnant or nursing a baby.

Why do these things? It’s all about aligning our lives with what we believe to be the will of God, about reflecting on what life is about and discovering what life means. It’s about becoming a better human being and being better able to be of service. Service to others, too, is a form of worship.

Our local communities meet once every nineteen days for the Nineteen Day Feast. We worship together – no rituals, only prayers and readings and perhaps some music, and anyone can read; we discuss community business; and then we socialize, have food and drink, and deepen our fellowship with each other. These meetings can take place anywhere: a Bahá’í Centre, if there is one; a rented hall; someone’s home.

The Bahá’í community is governed by democratically elected councils – local, national and international. The local and national Spiritual Assemblies, as they are called, are elected once a year. No one stands for election; all adult Bahá’ís are eligible to serve. The Universal House of Justice, the supreme authority for the Bahá’ís of the world, is elected once every five years by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies throughout the world.

I’m a currently a member of the UK National Spiritual Assembly and work full time as its Secretary for External Affairs. This does not make me a religious leader nor does it give me any power. But it does give me the responsibility of representing the Bahá’í community to government, parliament, the media, and civil society.

The job of the Assemblies is to empower and enable the Bahá’ís, individually or in groups, to plan activities.

Bahá’ís throughout the world are currently focusing on four kinds of activities that are open to all, regardless of whether they’re Bahá’ís or not: devotional meetings in our own homes; spiritual and moral education classes for children; classes for junior youth (12-15 year olds) and study groups where anyone can come to explore what the Bahá’í writings say about the big questions of life and death.

Becoming a Bahá’í when I was 18 was undoubtedly the most important decision I have ever taken. My whole adult life has been shaped by my faith. Every moment of every day and every action I take is guided by my faith. I pray that the moment of my passing from this world to the next will be protected by my faith.

Barney Leith has been an active Bahá’í since the mid 1960s. In 1993 he was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the UK Bahá’ís. Barney has been married to Erica since 1970. They have three grown-up offspring and three grandchildren.
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage