Followers of Baha'u'llah -- known as Baha'is -- will commemorate the anniversary of his passing on Sunday, May 29.
The Ascension of Baha'u'llah -- as it is called by Baha'is -- is a Holy Day for six million people in 192 countries and territories. It was the day when the Founder of the Baha'i Faith concluded nearly 40 years of a ministry and imprisonment that led him as an exile through present-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and finally to Akka, Israel, where he died under house arrest on May 29, 1892. The essence of his message was one of unity -- that the world's great religions all come from the same Source, and that the world's peoples are part of the same human family.
This Holy Day also serves as a reminder that in Iran, the land of the birth of the Baha'i Faith, Baha'is still do not enjoy religious freedom and are the targets of persecution and oppression.
For example, this past week an additional fourteen Baha'is were arrested in various parts of the country -- one was later released -- due to their heroic efforts to maintain a university for young Baha'is who have been barred by the government from receiving an education -- simply due to being a member of Iran's largest religious minority. The Iranian Government has long waged a campaign of persecution against the Baha'i community, preventing them from holding public jobs, attending public educational institutions, and meeting freely as a community.
While I completed my graduate studies at Princeton University, one of my Baha'i friends was an alumnus of this Baha'i university -- the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) -- and was at Princeton completing his PhD in physics. For most of my final year there, his father was held in a detention facility in Iran under no official charges -- other than the fact that he was a known Baha'i in his area.
This particular spring is also the third consecutive year of the detention of a group of seven Baha'is in Iran -- known as the Yaran -- who serve as administrative focal points for the Baha'i community in Iran, in the absence of permission from being allowed to formally organize. These seven individuals were found guilty last year of espionage and propaganda and are currently serving a 20-year prison sentence.
The response from the international community about these events has been unequivocal. President Obama stated that the Baha'is in Iran have been "punished for their faith," and Secretary of State Clinton said the U.S. "strongly condemns the sentencing as a violation of Iran's obligations" under international law. Joining the EU and numerous other human rights organizations, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron sent a message of encouragement to the Baha'is of Iran, saying, "Your dignity and patience is admirable."
For Baha'is, the anniversary of Baha'u'llah's passing is a time to remember his life of service, reflect on his suffering, and read his scriptures that span nearly 100 volumes. Even for many who are not Baha'is, his injunction to humanity to have a "vision that is world-embracing," is recognized as relevant today as when he passed 119 years ago.
As an American currently working in Afghanistan, I am joined by Afghan and international colleagues who hope that the near future holds a brighter promise of peace for this war-torn country. Baha'u'llah's Ascension reminds me that the ancient promise of "heaven on earth" must be achieved through daily effort to build a world where peace is no longer an illusive dream, but an answer to the prayers of so many.
Jonathan Gandomi is a Baha'i who works in international affairs and development.