Bahraini Woman Activist Urges Arab and Gulf States to Recognise Baha’i Faith

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Manama, Bahrain- A Bahraini activist is urging the government to recognise Baha’i Faith and allow the community to gather and worship freely.

Esra’a Al Shafei, whose work focuses on ethnic and religious minorities, said it was high time Arab and Gulf governments legally recognised the Baha’is.

“The community should be given a license to operate their place of worship by concerned authorities. Baha’i issue is not taboo and the society should accept them as a contributing community,” the woman activist said.

The call comes when Baha’is from different parts of the world celebrated on Saturday the 165th anniversary of the birth of the Baha’i faith.

Al Shafei who is Director of Mideast Youth Foundation, which runs the Muslim Network of Baha’i Rights, said people should not look at the community as – ‘Zionists in disguise’

“Just because they have their temple in Israel (Haifa) does not mean they should be labelled as Zionists. Historically, Baha’is have immense respect to Islam. But Jewish have more rights compared with Baha’is in Middle East,”Al Shafei explained.

Bahai cemetry
Baha’i cemetery in Salmabad, Bahrain.

The female activist highlighted that Baha’is in the island had access to health care, education and other services something which they were deprived in Arab states such as Iran and Egypt.

Her project (www.bahairights.org) is developed along with a group of Muslim interfaith activists who believe in tolerance and co-existence.

“It was a challenge for us to start this project at a time when Egypt and Iran were silently persecuting Baha’is because of their faith,” she said.

Baha’i Faith believes in the unity of God, religion, world peace, balance between nature and technology and gender equality among other teachings. The religion holds Baha’u’llah(the Glory of God) to be the greatest prophet which is considered heretical by Muslims who believe Prophet Mohammed as the greatest of all prophets.

There are an estimated six million Baha’is in the world spread over in 200 countries. According to a report, there were about 300,000- 350,000 Baha’is in Iran followed by 2,000 in Egypt registered as religious minority in Muslim countries. In neighbouring Kuwait, where the community numbers at 400, the government views the Baha’i Faith as not being sanctioned by the Qur’an (holy book of Islam); the community cannot construct places of worship. But Baha’is can practice their faith privately without governmental interference. The situation is the same in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Jordan and Lebanon.

Al Shafei said with International pressure on these countries, Egypt for example started to issue IDs for Baha’i, something which she said the government ignored earlier in issuance of the official ID cards. The Egyptians authorities only recognize three religions- Islam, Christianity or Judaism. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0aylHuBHKQ&feature=channel_page)

Al Shafei said the result was hundreds of Baha’is left on the margins of the society with no access to medical care, education, employment, housing and other government services.

“We are fighting this war of perception in Arab and Gulf states to understand and accept this community,” the activist explained.

It was not an easy journey for Al Shafei who is been condemned and criticized by clerics from the oil rich, Saudi Arabia and other regions.

” They call us names and say we will go to hell. Our work for some conservatives is against Islamic teachings. Some clerics leave abusive or life threatening comments on our website. My source of strength is my family for being supportive and understanding my passion for the cause,” the female activist said.

Their plate may be full of criticism, but there is also a small but growing portion of progressive Muslims who are supporting the cause.

“We have no propaganda and want all majorities to stand up for all minorities. For example, an Israeli supporting a Palestinian for his rights and recognizing him/her or Arabs recognizing Kurdish rights can make a sea change of difference,” the Bahraini youth said.

Bahrain is seen as a model of religious tolerance in the region. Last year, the leadership appointed Huda Nonu, first Jewish Ambassador from an Arab and Gulf nation to the United States. The island shares its borders with the oil rich Saudi Arabia and is home to the US Navy Fifth Fleet.