Bahai

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A Holy Land?

By Sr Isabel Smyth SND, Secretary of the Bishops’ Committee For Interfaith Relations

Since my last blog two weeks ago a war has raged in Israel-Palestine. It’s not the only part of the world that’s at war but it is a conflict which affects interfaith relations here in Scotland in a way that no other conflict does. This is because for four of the world religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith the land is regarded as holy and often referred to as ‘The Holy Land’.  For Jews it is the land that God gave them and offered them a place of safety after the Holocaust and hundreds of years of antisemitism in Christian Europe. For Christianity it is the land where Jesus was born, lived, preached, died and rose again. For Islam it is the place where Mohammed undertook his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then ascended through the seven heavens to encounter the various prophets and meet God face to face.  For Bahai’s it is the land where the three central figures of their faith, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha are buried and where the Baha’i’s global spiritual and administrative centre is to be found.

For all four faiths it’s a place of pilgrimage and many believers have an investment in and concern for this part of the world that’s not always recognised. I’ve often heard Jews question why people seem to be more interested and critical of Israel than any other area of conflict, even suggesting such interest could in fact be antisemitic. I’ve also been in a situation at a Council of Christians and Jews where someone from the Jewish community was disturbed that we Christians might think of Israel as our Holy Land while Jews obviously think of it as theirs.

This is a challenge and often the elephant in the room during dialogues between followers of the four faiths who see themselves as descendants of Abraham, which in fact makes them brothers and sisters. However, while we all agree that Abraham is our father, and hold that the land is holy there is much not to agree on. For Muslims, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is the spot from which Mohammed travelled to the highest heaven during his night journey and received the revelation of the Qur’an. The Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and the one to which the early Muslim community turned when praying until God directed them to pray in the direction of the Kabaa in Mecca instead. Towards the end of Ramadan this journey of the Prophet is celebrated as the Night of Power and devout Muslims will spend the whole night in prayer and recitation of the Qur’an.

The Mosque is built on the Temple Mount and, within the shrine of the Dome of the Rock beside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, lies the place where Abraham was sent to sacrifice his son Isaac and the site of the First and Second Jewish Temple including the Holy of Holies, the most sacred site in Judaism.  This was the innermost and most sacred area of the Temple, accessible only to the High Priest who once a year, on the Day of Atonement, was permitted to enter the sanctuary to offer sacrifice to atone for his own sins and those of the priesthood. Within the Holy of Holies was kept the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of Israel’s special relationship with God. And for many orthodox Jews it is the place where the third and final Temple will be built when the Messiah comes. So sacred is this place that many Jews will not walk on the Mount itself in case they unintentionally enter the area where the Holy of Holies stood, since according to rabbinical law, there is still some aspect of the divine presence at the site. What is left to Jews is what remains of the Western wall of the Temple which for them is a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

So, here we have, in a land troubled by concerns about nationhood and land boundaries, a holy site which is claimed by both Judaism and Islam. It’s one of the most contested religious sites in the world and a focal point for the Israeli – Arab conflict as we have seen in this most recent war. It’s not the cause of the conflict, which is much more political than directly religious, but it does reflect a little bit the different loyalties, narratives, histories, allegiances that come in to play when reflecting on Israel-Palestine – loyalties, narratives, histories and allegiances that can affect relations here in Scotland. Most attempts to speak about the situation leads to polarisation, a desire of both Israelis and Palestinians to tell their story, believing very often that the ‘other’ side’s story is heard more than theirs. I’ve stopped listening to these stories unless balanced by the story of the ‘other’ side. Perhaps what we need is for those of us who call this land holy to reflect with one another on what that means, to feel the pain of division, to recognise the right of all to justice and statehood and above all pray for a peace which shows that it is not ownership or even history that makes a place holy but a recognition of a common humanity under God that recognises all others as our sisters and brothers.

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 The St Mungo Museum

by Sr Isabel Smyth SND

90433a9d77b7fe301a2afc0c7e8b61570c336a47The St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art is a very special place. It’s named after Glasgow’s patron saint who brought the Christian faith to Scotland in the 6th century and designed in the style of the medieval Bishops’ Castle on which site it’s built.  When it was opened in 1993 it was one of only two museums of religions in Europe though there were Christian monasteries and churches that had been converted into or housed displays of religion. What made St Mungo’s different was that it included all religions and none and in the 1990s this wasn’t very popular especially with the Christian Churches, many of whom had a theology of believing they had an exclusive insight into truth and salvation and weren’t at all sure about displaying artefacts from ‘non-christian’ faiths.  What challenged many of them was that the Gallery of Religious Life showed that all faiths celebrated, ritualised, and customised significant moments in life – birth, initiation, commitment, marriage, death. The displays honoured the integrity of each faith but showed their similarities.  I delighted to see statues of the Virgin Mary with her son Jesus next to the Goddess Isis with her son Horus in exactly the same pose, or the infant Jesus next to the infant Krishna. This did annoy some people, but part of interfaith work is to realise that all want to celebrate significant rites of passage and that there are universal symbols and commonalities in the way they do this.  It should also be said of course that it attracted a lot of praise and recognition for being ground-breaking and innovative and for significant artefacts like the statue of Siva Nataraja and the first authentic zen garden in Britain.

When the museum was being set up the curators worked hard to involve stakeholders and be inclusive of all faiths. Through the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths, faith communities were kept informed of developments, were consulted about the displays, and even contributed to them.  Because of this the various faith communities felt they had an investment in the museum. In a very special way, it felt like home to them, and was used to celebrate festivals and events like the exhibition on the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic which was brought to Glasgow by Hans Kung who had presented it and had it accepted at the Parliament of World Religions in 1993, the same year the museum opened. But above all the museum became a centre for interfaith activity.

EPcLyRmWsAAdaksThe mission statement of St Mungo’s says that it is designed to ‘explore the importance of religion in people’s everyday lives across the world and across time, aiming to promote mutual understanding and respect between people of different faiths and none’. As an interfaith practitioner I’ve had a lot to do with the museum and been greatly supported in my work by the curator, manager and staff.  For about fifteen years we hosted an annual Meet Your Neighbour event which happened over a weekend but took an interfaith committee many months to plan. Different religious communities set up a display of their faith in the function room and were available to meet and talk to visitors. The weekend was punctuated by musical or cultural events, like the Jewish Choral Society, Hindu dancers, bellringers, tabla and sitar players. We had workshops on storytelling, sari wearing. Mehndi, calligraphy.  We involved schools and on occasions when we decided on a concert on the Sunday afternoon, we had people standing by the zen garden with the doors and windows open so that they could hear the concert as there were no seats left in the function room. Sometimes the dialogues were of a more serious nature and in the run up to the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 it was where members of faith communities gathered to consider what the New Scotland would be like for people of faith.faa2fd178f6d502b558226e09f84c8e3

It was in the light of these discussions that the Scottish Interfaith Consultative Group was formed and this then led to the setting up of the Scottish Interfaith Council which today is known as Interfaith Scotland.  The Council was started with very little – myself as the founding director, the gift of a computer from my community and the use of an office in St Mungo’s. This consolidated the relationship between the Museum and SIFC and we continued to work well together. For us St Mungo’s became the home to our dialogues with First Ministers, religious leaders, interfaith practitioners from England, Ireland, and Wales. It’s where we grew and developed. We eventually had to move out when we got funding to appoint staff and even then we were given an office by Glasgow Life, the body that runs Glasgow Museums. And continued to work together especially in projects such as the setting up of the Forum of Faiths by Glasgow City Council.

I think it’s obvious that St Mungo’s Museum is very close to my heart and I hope it’s obvious that it has fulfilled its mission well and contributed positively to the social fabric of Glasgow.  So, I am appalled and dismayed that there is some likelihood that it might not open after the pandemic.  The suggestion that the Council is looking to transfer the museum to a third party is worrying. St Mungo’s is unique, it has made a significant contribution to overcome racism, sectarianism and religious prejudice. It has worked with faith communities, school children and others to promote mutual understanding, respect and cooperation. It has involved stakeholders in a way no other museum has and to shut it would be a disgrace as far as I am concerned. It’s something that must be contested.

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Sharing Scripture – a Bahai and a Christian encounter the Gospel of John

A Guest Blog by Allan Forsyth

640px-Gospel_of_johnIf you want to build understanding between faiths then you have to build understanding
between hearts. I’ve often thought that the best way to describe faith is as a love affair.
Beyond their own particular theology, people of faith, it seems to me, are primarily motivated
by a deep love for something which is ultimately transcendent and indescribable. Over the
past few weeks I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to share in a dialogue with someone from
a different faith background to explore this.

Margaret is a neighbour of mine who moved in across the road a few years ago. As we got
to know each other better we discovered that we had a shared interest in the Divine and our
friendship has flourished. Margaret’s faith background is Christian and mine is Baha’i. It
became apparent to me that Margaret was an independent thinker with a deep knowledge of
and love for the Bible and she described her relationship with Christ in a way that intrigued
me. I had some knowledge of the Bible but had never studied it. I was conscious that if there
was one book that speaks directly to the meaning of Jesus’ life, it was probably the Gospel
of John and so I asked Margaret if we could study it together. She was delighted to do so
and so for the past 7 or 8 weeks we have been meeting together for an hour on
Wednesdays and Saturdays. The first few weeks were on Skype but then we were able to
move to the garden (on good days and with social distancing).

The experience of reading sacred scripture and then reflecting together on it has been very
powerful for both of us. Progress through the book has been slow but I now realise that that
was unavoidable as we have no deadline and almost every verse of the text generates
substantial comment. The study is largely led by Margaret because she has a much more
extensive knowledge of the text and the context of the whole Bible. After reading 2 or 3
verses she will generally make comments and I will then ask questions and contribute
comment. The conversation then often develops in exploring the implications of what we
have read in our understanding and our reading of the world today.

So what have I learned and what questions are still unfolding? I have learned that John is
direct and unambiguous about who Jesus is – his uniqueness, divinity and his eternal nature
;that his call to his contemporaries was rooted in the Hebrew scriptures and that he points
towards a fulfilment yet to come. An example of this and a passage that really struck me is
John 3:14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be
lifted up..”. I was fascinated to learn that this is both a reference to Numbers 21:9 and a
pointer to Jesus’ crucifixion and the healing and new life to humanity that that would bring. I
would not have been able to glean this from a study by myself. A profound moment during
the study occurred when we shared the well-known verse from Matthew – “For where two or
three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – and realised that that was exactly what we
were doing.

My own perspective on the text is greatly influenced by the Baha’i commentaries on the
Bible which are unequivocal in their recognition of Jesus but which point to a more spiritual
rather than literal interpretation of many key passages. This has presented a challenge to us
reaching a common understanding at times. However, our dialogue is based on a strong
friendship and a mutual respect for each other’s faiths and this has allowed both of us to
gain new insights. It seems we have reached a stage beyond “agreeing to differ” into
“agreeing to continue to explore”.

Currently in the middle of chapter 7, I find our studies refreshing, challenging and
invigorating and I look forward to every meeting. We have tentatively planned to move next
to the Revelation of St. John which probably shows a confidence verging on the foolhardy. It
has stimulated my own wish to deepen more on the sacred scriptures of all faiths. However
rather than just picking up the Qu’ran or the Guru Granth Sahib, I now might seek out a
Muslim or Sikh to study it with.

In over 27 years of stimulating and varied interfaith activity, this has been the most profound
and exciting experience I have taken part in. I think it points to the next stage that is required
if faith communities are to fulfil their potential to contribute to the real peace that humanity
cries out for – to work together to understand each other and find the common threads that
can be woven together in common purpose.

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Spring Festivals

By Sr Isabel Smyth

A global virus has done what we human beings have been incapable of doing – reducing carbon emissions. For the first time in a long time Beijing is without pollution and citizens can see blue sky, the canals of Venice are clear and fish and dolphins are returning. Is coronavirus the cosmos reaching out for equilibrium and will we humans learn from it?  So much of ordinary life has changed but nature goes on and there are signs of spring everywhere. Even religious services have been cancelled but there’s still much to celebrate in religion. Recently there’s been a rash of religious festivals, all around the 21st March.

On 21st March the Baha’i community ended their nineteen day fast with the festival of Naw Ruz, which is also the Iranian and Zoroastrian New Year. Taking place, as it does, at the spring equinox it symbolises the new life of spring and is associated with the Most Great Name of God. Sending greetings to the Baha’i community, Bishop Brian McGee, chair of the Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue commented that there is a lesson for all of us in this, especially those of us who are believers: “For those of us who are believers the sovereignty of God is a counterpoint to the material and consumerist culture of our times.  Coronavirus, climate change and its consequences, conflicts between and within nations are indicative of a world in which humanity has forgotten that life is a gift, that we are all brothers and sisters sharing a common home with a responsibility of caring for creation and one another for the sake of future generations.”  Shall we be more aware of this when the present crisis is over?

Another spring festival which lasts over two days is the Hindu festival of Holi. Like all Hindu festivals there are stories attached to them – one is of a demon Holika who was burned on a pyre in place of Prahlahda who insisted on worshipping the God Vishnu. Another is of the Lord Krishna who being worried that Radha would not accept his blue skin was encouraged by his mother to rub any colour he wished on Radha’s face. So the carnival atmosphere during Holi involves the lighting of bonfires to symbolise the overcoming of evil and throw coloured paint and powder over one another. I was in India once during Holi. We danced round the bonfire but I retired well before the others who danced and sang all through the night. The next day we were bombarded with coloured water bombs that seemed to come out of nowhere. This year Holi was celebrated at the beginning of March, before the virus kept people off the streets.

At the same time as the Hindu community were celebrating Holi, the Jewish community were  celebrating the carnival festival of Purim.  Purim recalls how Queen Esther saved the Jewish community when the wicked Haman had convinced King Ahaseurus of Persia to issue a decree ordering their extermination. The story is told at Purim when the Book of Esther is read through twice in the synagogue. Every time the name Haman is mentioned it’s drowned out with rattles and hooters and boos from the congregation. Children also wear fancy dress and there’s a sense of hope and celebration, a bond of unity within the community and a belief in survival in the face of what in the story seemed a hopeless situation.  I’m sure this festival has taken on added significance since the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. It’s a lesson for all of us that life can come out of death, that hope can overcome despair, that communities that stand together can and do survive.

Last year these three festivals fell on the same day. This year Purim and Holi were held earlier in March while Naw Ruz was celebrated on 20th. They’ve a certain amount in common, being Spring festivals. Purim and Holi have a carnival atmosphere and all of them a sense of new beginnings, a sense that light can follow darkness. As the world faces these dark days of isolation and quarantine their message can give us hope and confidence that this too will pass, that a new life is possible, that we will one day be able to celebrate once again with family and friends.

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Naw Ruz

The Baha’i faith will celebrate “Naw-Ruz” or New Year, on March 20th through the evening of March 21st.

The Baha’i faith is a growing faith in Scotland. Scotland’s Baha’i history began around 1905. This was around the time when European visitors, met Abdu’l-Baha, who was the leader of the Baha’i religion at the time. The Baha’i religion has grown in Scotland in the last twenty years and now there are over 7,000 Baha’i’s across the entire United Kingdom, with a large percentage living in Scotland. The Baha’i faith was founded in 19th century Iran by Baha’u’llah, whose title means the Glory of God. The Baha’i religion is centered around the teachings of Baha’u’llah. In a quote by Baha’u’llah, he says, “The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife.” The Baha’i faith teaches the fundamental worth of all religions. At the same time, the Baha’i faith also teaches about the harmony and equality of all people.

The Baha’i new year, or Naw-Ruz is a special time of year for the Baha’i faith. While for Baha’is this holiday is part of their religion, in other countries it is considered a secular holiday. It is traditionally and currently celebrated as an Iranian new year holiday, however, many other countries across the Middle East and Central Asia have also adopted Naw-Ruz including, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Pakistan, Syria, and Tajikistan Kurdistan.

The words “Naw-Ruz” stand for “new day”, and it is a new year festival which falls at the spring equinox. It is a day which also symbolizes the new life of spring. The festival is usually observed with prayer and celebration. “The celebration is often combined with a feast, as the sunset before Naw-Ruz signals the end of the 19 day fast.”. The 19 day fast represents a spiritual preparation for Naw-Ruz, Music and dancing can also take place during the celebration of Naw-Ruz along with visiting friends and family and exchanging gifts.

We wish all our Baha’i friends a happy Naw-Ruz! You can read Archbishop Conti’s letter of warm wishes and greetings to the Baha’i community of Scotland on our website.

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