In Haifa, a global election showcases global diversity

More than 1,000 delegates from 153 countries, using a distinctive democratic electoral process, gather to elect the international governing body of the Bahá'í Faith

HAIFA, Israel — For nearly three hours on 29 April 2008, more than 1,000 people from 153 countries filed decorously onto a stage in this Holy Land municipality and, one by one, dropped ballots into a simple wooden box.

Many wore national costumes, contributing to an event that showcased the global diversity of the worldwide Bahá'í community - along with a high-minded spiritual dignity.

The result was the election of nine individuals from wide-ranging backgrounds to serve as the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá'í Faith.

The newly elected are an Iranian-born physicist who specialized in development in Colombia, an African-American law professor, an agronomist who worked some 27 years in Africa, an Australian-born electrical engineer of South Asian descent, an accomplished painter and former Hollywood actor who spent many years in Nicaragua, a Colombian mathematician, an American educator, a psychologist from India, and a business consultant from London.

While the specific outcome is likely to be of concern mainly to the worldwide Bahá'í community of some 5 million people, the event and the processes behind it were nevertheless noteworthy as a study in how to conduct a global election that is free, democratic, and transparent.

The balloting reflected a unique election process that emphasizes qualifications over promises, and inclusiveness over money or other barriers to office.

There are no parties or platforms, all forms of campaigning are strictly avoided, and no nominations are made. Rather, after prayer and reflection, each delegate simply writes down the names of nine men who he or she feels are best qualified to serve.

The delegates to the convention are the members of the Bahá'í National Spiritual Assemblies of the world, who were themselves elected by delegates chosen at the grassroots level in their own countries. Thus virtually every adult Bahá'í in the world had the opportunity to participate in the election of their supreme body, an event that occurs every five years.

About 500 of the 1494 delegates could not be present for voting, for personal or other reasons. Those who could not attend sent ballots by mail, and there were numerous pauses in the procession as tellers brought forward absentee ballots, removed an identifying outer envelope, and dropped the inner contents into the ballot box.

In the case of Iran, where 300,000 Bahá'ís face intense persecution and Bahá'í administration has been outlawed, the absence of delegates was noted by the placement of 95 red roses at the front of the stage and the reading of a message from Iranian Bahá'ís.

The entire process took about a week, as delegates spent several days in advance of the actual voting on visits to Bahá'í holy places here in an effort to cultivate an attitude of prayer and reflection. Then, after the voting and the announcement of results the next day, delegates remained for two days to discuss topics of concern to the Bahá'í world.

After the election, one key topic for discussion was an analysis of how a recently launched initiative, which seeks to provide service to humanity around the world through four "core activities," was faring.

Many delegates said the initiative, built around children's classes, devotional meetings, study circles, and programs for young teens, was starting to yield results.

In India, for example, it was reported that more than 80,000 people have studied a basic booklet that discusses simple moral virtues and the nature of human spiritual reality. Some 6,000 people in India have advanced to the seventh book in the same series of material, which was created by the Bahá'í-inspired Ruhi Institute in Colombia and overall strives to empower individuals and build the capacity to work together in service to humanity.

Delegates from Brazil said an effort to reach out to young teens around Porto Alegre now has hundreds of participants. Such classes for "junior youth" do not teach the Bahá'í Faith but rather focus on improving literacy, thinking and articulation skills, and encouraging better moral choices - all designed to "empower" young people.

The classes have been so successful, said Katherine Monajjem, a delegate from Brazil, that some local public school officials have embraced them as a model. "One school supervisor was so impressed that, although she is a Baptist, she asked that her young son be trained in the program," said Ms. Monajjem.

The situation in the world at large was also very much on the minds of the some 1,000 delegates at the convention. In addition to the mechanics of systematized study and outreach, delegates discussed wider topics relating to the deteriorating social conditions in the world, from the crisis in moral education to the impact of HIV/AIDs in Africa.

For many delegates, as well, the convention was an encounter with the community's diversity.

Gregory C. Dahl, who formerly worked at the International Monetary Fund and has attended many U.N.-related meetings, said he had never seen anything like it.

"This is easily the most diverse gathering of people on the planet," he said of the convention. He compared it to a UN meeting but said the diversity at the Bahá'í gathering came not just from the different nationalities but from the backgrounds of the participants.

"At the United Nations, there are representatives from many countries, but not from so many different social, economic, and professional classes," said Mr. Dahl, who attended the Bahá'í convention as a delegate from Bulgaria. He noted that the others from Bulgaria included someone who works for a coal-mining company, another employed by an insurance company, a musician, and a secretary.

More than 40 percent of the convention delegates were women. The oldest delegate, from Niger, was 82. The youngest was a woman from Belarus who turned 21 last August and was elected to her National Assembly in a by-election in November. (The minimum age for election to a Bahá'í assembly is 21.)

Alan Smith of the Virgin Islands was attending his sixth International Bahá'í Convention and said he noticed a difference this year.

"It's feeling far more international," he said, attributing the change not to additional countries but to more diverse groups of delegates from within each country.

Among the delegates from Russia, for example, were two ethnic Russians; one Russian with Estonian ancestry; two individuals of Buryat-Mongolian ethnicity from Eastern Siberia; a Tatar, whose family background is Muslim; an Osetin woman from the Caucasus; and an American-born man descended from Russian Jews who is married to a Russian and lives in Siberia.

From the United States came a federal judge, a psychologist, a medical doctor, a corporate retirement plan manager, and an administrator who works with health-care issues for Native Americans. Some are white, some are black, and one is American Indian of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of the Sicangu Lakota.

From Albania came a police officer, a lawyer, a teacher, and a secretary. And from Venezuela came "younger" and "older" - three of the delegates were 25 years old, and two were in their 60s or older.

Daniel Woodard, an engineering student from Caracas, said he realized at the convention that not only is the Bahá'í community diverse but that it truly encompasses the whole world. He was even more heartened by the unified spirit, as Bahá'ís and others work together to create a better world.

"Despite the fact that there are now many of us, and we are so diverse, nobody is being left behind," he said of the people he saw. "We are so intertwined that as we move forward, if someone falters or has difficulties, they will be sustained and helped by the others."