The Baha'i faith was founded in Iran in the 19th century, but its adherents believe the United States has a special spiritual destiny. Baha'is are celebrating the 100-year anniversary of a visit to the United States by Abdu'l Baha, whom they call "The Master."
Abdu'l Baha arrived in the United States in April 1912 and traveled across the country by train. During the journey, he declared that America had the potential to "lead all nations spiritually."
Abdu'l Baha, who was 68 at the time, was the son of the founder of the Baha'i faith, Baha'u'llah.
"For Baha'is, it marked the first time in religious human history, that a holy member of a prophet of God's family had come to Western shores," says Layli Miller-Muro, a member of the Baha'i leadership assembly in Washington. "Most religions begin in the East, and we don't often have a direct descendent able to come to the West."
Many Americans were impressed by Abdu'l Baha's speeches and a number converted, including the ancestors of some of the more than 2,000 people who attended a recent commemorative event in Washington. Miller-Muro said the reception given to Abdu'l Baha is comparable to the way the Dalai Lama often is welcomed in the West.
"He was on the front page of various newspapers," she said. "He met with diplomats, Alexander Graham Bell, Theodore Roosevelt, and his presence was important because he was known for being a great man of this great religion and it was widely known that he had been imprisoned for over 50 years."
More than 5 million Baha'is are estimated to live around the world. They believe that all religions are valid as part of a progressive revelation of God's truth, and that Baha'u'llah, who was born in 19th century Persia and is now buried in Israel, was the most recent of God's messengers to humanity.
"And so it would be silly as Baha'is to say that Baha'u'llah is any better than prophets of the past," Miller-Muro said.
But Baha'is have had trouble in Islamic countries, mostly Iran, but also Egypt and Afghanistan. Muslims believe their Prophet Muhammed received God's final revelation.
"Bahai religious groups reported arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention, expulsions from universities, and confiscation of property," the U.S. State Department's 2011 International Religious Freedom Report says about Iran. It says that about 300,000 Baha'is live in Iran, and under that country's application of Islamic law, they are considered to be apostates whose blood can be "spilled with impunity."
"Their theology, their world view, their perspective, is in direct competition with the theological ideology of the Iranian regime," says Joseph Griebowski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. He calls Baha'is "a wonderfully progressive and engaging religious community" and adds that while Iran is run by mullahs and restricts the liberties of women, Baha'is encourage female leadership and have no clergy.
Rosita Najmi organizes regular Baha'i devotional gatherings at her home in Washington and invites non-Bahai friends and neighbors to join in the ritual, which involves reading from inspired writings by a variety of religious and secular authors.
"The devotional gathering is one way in which Baha'is can interact with people of any or no religious background, as a way to have an exchange of an elevated conversation," says Najmi, who said she is grateful the United States allowed her family to come as religious refugees.
"If I were in Iran, I would not have been able to go to college or university," she said. "I would have had very limited employment opportunities, and not because I am a woman, but because I am a Baha'i."
Here, she studied at Harvard, one of America's most prestigious universities.
"I experience great guilt, and great sadness, for my Baha'i brothers and sisters who really just do not have a choice," she said.