The Bahá'í religion advocates world peace. Easier said than done – especially in the Middle East, where its adherents face harassment, discrimination, torture and even execution.
Under such circumstances, records get lost or destroyed – as some documents from the off-the-beaten-track Bahá'í religion already have.
This month, Stanford University Libraries established the first academic, university-based Bahá'í collection in the United States. The donation of one of the most extensive Bahá'í libraries in private hands preserves a history that might otherwise be lost.
The collection includes more than 1,000 books, letters, photographs and rare, out-of-print early Bahá'í publications from around the world, as well as other archival materials and papers. The new Jack H. Lee and Arden T. Lee Fund for Bahá'í Studies will ensure that the collection of archival material will continue to grow.
John Eilts, the curator for the libraries' Islamic and Middle Eastern collection, noted that interest in the Bahá'í faith and the history of the Bahá'ís in the Middle East is growing. "The addition of this collection is a great foundation for a collection to provide resources for our researchers. The endowment being set up will assure that the collection continues to grow as more research needs develop," he said.
While the University of California at Los Angeles has recently created a lectureship on the Bahá'í faith in Iran,Stanford's program is aimed at building a library research resource.
Bahá'í is considered the world's youngest monotheistic religion, born in Persia in the mid-19th century. Its adherents have grown to more than 5 million people across the world. But in the country of its birth, since 1979 more than 200 Bahá'ís have been killed, their holy places and cemeteries desecrated, their homes burned, civil rights taken away and secret lists compiled of Bahá'ís – and even the Muslims who associate with them – by government agencies.
The Iranian government has had a campaign of repression against Bahá'ís, Christians, Jews and minority Muslim groups, according to Human Rights Watch. But the Bahá'ís have even less protection than the others. "Unlike Iran's Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian communities, which are accorded constitutional protection, the Iranian government does not recognize the Bahá'í Faith and considers its adherents to be apostates from Shi'a Islam," notes Human Rights Watch.
The Stanford Libraries are becoming a center for collections focusing on the world's religions.
The libraries' medieval Christian manuscripts are on display in a current exhibit, "Scripting the Sacred." There are several major acquisitions in the growing Judaica and Hebraica collections, including the Taube-Baron Collection of Jewish History and Culture, the Samson/Copenhagen Judaica Collection and the Eliasaf Robinson Collection on Tel Aviv.
And the collection of Islamic texts and manuscripts is also growing.
"The study of this Middle Eastern faith and its believers is a logical extension of the study of other religions, especially Islam here at Stanford," said Eilts.
Arden Lee, who became a Bahá'í in 1952 and established the collection in honor of her late husband, Jack Lee, said her religion "connected me with the history of civilizations."
Like many collectors, she began salvaging what had been disregarded or devalued by others. She scoured old bookshops where she found Bahá'í books whose original owners aged and died, and whose heirs had put them on the market.
As the years passed and Lee's collection became known, Bahá'ís increasingly left their books to Lee in their wills.
She recalled that during the couple's car trip to Maine from their Wisconsin home in the 1960s, a friend approached Lee with books and papers from a Bahá'í member who had recorded the messages Abdu'l-Bahá, the son and spiritual heir of Bahá'í founder Bahá'u'lláh, would send to America from the organization's center in Haifa, Israel.
The messages were sent by carbon copy and may be the only copies in the world. The friend also had records from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s crammed into her attic.
"I filled up the car with as much of it I could save," said Lee. "We were fortunate we had a house big enough to house it."
Sue Khavari, a historian and retired university librarian affiliated with several institutions, has known of the Lees' extensive collection for more than half a century.
She praised the excellent match between Stanford and the collection, given "the diversity of its student body, its orientation toward the future, and as the source of the world-uniting computer revolution. Stanfordis the logical place to be the first university with a scholarly Bahá'í collection."
Bahá'ís gathered at Green Library to celebrate the new collection on the centenary of Abdu'l-Bahá's visit toStanford to give an address on world peace. That visit 100 years ago was the first and only time Stanfordclasses were cancelled so that the entire faculty and student body could hear a speaker, thanks to StanfordPresident David Starr Jordan, a pacifist and one of the trustees of the Carnegie Peace Endowment. The Palo Altan devoted a 4-page issue entirely to the occasion.
Early recognition for the new collection came from a distinguished source. U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo of California's 14 District is a human rights advocate and co-chair of the congressional Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East. Eshoo is the daughter of Assyrian and Armenian immigrants who fled anti-Christian violence in the region.
"The recognition of religious minorities and the preservation of their ongoing history will enrich those who access this important history," said Eshoo. "I commend the Stanford University Libraries on its work to build a lasting collection of Bahá'í materials in our community."
Cynthia Haven is the associate director for communications at the Stanford University Libraries.