The Baháʼí Office of Public Affairs’ 2020 in review: A year of change

This year has been one of unprecedented change and transformation. As coronavirus swept the world, all levels of society – individuals, communities and institution – were forced to reconsider patterns of life, and radically alter them.

Alongside the rest of society, our Office started to navigate a new reality. With our friends and colleagues, much of the year was spent considering the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic as well as the resilience and hope demonstrated by communities across the globe in facing this new challenge.

At the Office, circumstances allowed us to begin identifying new and constructive themes opening up in society, as well as deepening our understanding of, and contribution to, the discourses already being followed.

In a year of intense challenges, there have also been highlights:

The beginning of the year saw Holly contribute to BBC Radio 2’s ‘Pause for Thought’. In her first episode, Holly spoke about human nobility and the narratives we tell ourselves. In subsequent episodes, she explored what it means to turn towards light, and also how to make sense of darkness.

The earlier months of the year also saw a representative of the Office attend a conference at St George’s House, Windsor Castle, to engage in a forum on religion and climate change.

In March, as the world started adjusting to the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, the Commission on the Status of Women was cancelled. Reflecting on this, we shared an article on International Women’s Day around celebrating the progress we have made towards the equality of men and women, and what still needs to be done.

After the period of the fast, Baháʼís across the world celebrated Naw Ruz, Baháʼí new year. Reflecting on the strength and hope shown by communities rallying together, we marked this by writing an article for the Religion Media Centre about what it meant to celebrate digitally. Throughout the year, we attended the Religion Media Centre’s digital briefing spaces, which brought together academics, journalists and religious actors, to explore the religious stories within the media.

In response to the pandemic, the Baháʼí community engaged in the Day in Pray in April. The Office held its own space, open to all, for individuals to come together to draw strength from inspirational words – from prayers, poems and philosophy. This became the first in a series of spaces for devotions hosted by the OPA. April also saw increased international pressure on the Houthis promise to release Hamed Bin Haydara, as well as the other five Baháʼís imprisoned in Houthi controlled Yemen.

Later, the Office submitted its response to the APPG Religion in the Media’s inquiry about religious literacy in print and broadcast media. In it, we offered the idea that expanding our vision of religion may support our understanding of what it means to truly understand religious literacy.

In May, celebrating Ridvan, we shared an article about this period of joy in the Baháʼí calendar and how it is was navigated differently during the lockdown.

During the summer, the Office wrote several articles about the lessons learned during the pandemic. We considered the local community as a source of support and belonging during the pandemic, and how this role might endure. We also explored the role of the media and how it is more than a mirror to society – it also helps to shape it. Alongside this, for LSE’s Religion and Global Society blog, we considered the relationship between the individual, communities and institutions in light of the pandemic, as well as the movements towards social justice that gripped the world’s population.

The Office also held the second of its devotional spaces in memory of the late Earl Cameron, one of the first black actors to ever star in a leading role. Industry experts, officials, family and friends joined a Zoom call paying tribute to the actor, sharing anecdotes about the role of service in Mr Cameron’s life.

Autumn saw the release of two animations. The first explored what we valued as a society and how the pandemic has provided an opportunity to rethink this. In the animation, we consider which values propel us forward as a society. The second reflected on how responses to Covid-19 have demonstrated our collective capacity to be selfless. It asked the question: what would the world look like if we recognised that everyone has an inherent capacity for self-sacrifice and altruism?

During this period, our collaborators joined a project called ‘Voicenotes for Change’. Contributors answered the question ‘how will society transform after Covid-19?’. Participants explored a range of ideas, from climate change, community and togetherness, and appreciating the importance of previously undervalued relationships. These can all be viewed on our social media accounts.

The coronavirus pandemic prompted us all to reconsider our national identity and global relationships. In exploring this, the Office wrote an article about the role that the UK might play in the post-pandemic world.

Usually, around this time the APPG on the Baháʼí Faith would be hosting its annual reception in Parliament. However, given the move to online spaces, the APPG’s celebration, which focused on the theme of hope and resilience and celebrated the Births of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, was moved to Zoom. MPs, journalists, and social actors attended the celebration, which featured representatives of local communities speaking about the way they had arisen to serve their neighbours and friends during lockdown.

The end of the year saw a flurry of activity. Baháʼís across the UK participated in, as well as hosted, numerous events for Interfaith week, with each space further emphasising the oneness of religion. The Office was also invited to contribute to the Faith and Belief Forum’s ‘Cohesive Societies’ report, where we offered a vision that focused on the constructive power of religion.

We also contributed to the Government’s call for evidence as part of its Faith Engagement Review. Our focus was that given the right conditions, religion can be a positive social force, providing a source of moral impetus to the lives of individuals and communities.

Religion can be a positive social force, providing a source of moral impetus to the lives of individuals and communities

Rounding off the year, and in preparation for the Centenary of the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of the Founder of the Bahai Faith, we released a video story about His generosity at a time of crisis. His example continues to inspire the Baháʼí community as it seeks to contribute to efforts to serve friends, neighbours, colleagues and communities during this time of acute need.

A final highlight came as Jim Shannon MP dedicated a statement in Parliament to the Baháʼís in Iran in commemoration of Human Rights Day.

As we move into 2021, we keep in mind the lessons and opportunities afforded by this year. Alongside many social actors, whose ideas and desire to improve the world around them also inspire and motivate us, we hope to continue deepening our understanding of our collective community, and how we may all contribute to its advancement across every sphere of life.

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