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In 1844 Mirza Ali Muhammad declared himself Bab, the guide to divine truth. He also proclaimed that 19 years later an even greater manifestation would come. Then in 1863, Mirza Hussayn Ali Nuri saw himself as the realization of the prophecy made by Bab.
Mirza Hussayn had at first been a follower of Bab, but took the name Baha'ullah at the death of Bab in 1850. Soon after the followers of Bab faced the first persecutions, with the killing of 20 by the Persian governments in 1852, and expulsion of Baha'ullah to Baghdad. But the Ottoman Empire which controlled Baghdad, did not treat him much better, and he, his family and followers finally ended up in Akko in Palestine (now in northern Israel)
While the followers of Baha'ullah are understood to have be a part of Babism for a long time after the death of Bab, that changed in 1863 when Baha'ullah declared himself the promised manifestation of God. In Baha'i this manifestation is considered the latest in God's manifestations, of which Zarathustra, Buddha (Buddhism), Krishna (Hinduism) Jesus and Muhammad represent other prominent ones. Yet, Baha'ullah is by far the most revered as he brought the last revelation to humanity.
The teachings of Baha'ullah were spread with his son, Abdu l-Baha'. He was imprisoned for years by the Ottomans, but was released in 1908, after which he travelled to Europe and North America, where he preached the message of Baha'i. By 1920 the largest communities of Baha'is were in the USA.
Today there are 2-5 million Baha'is in the world (Baha'i itself claims more than 5 million, but observers sometimes estimate the numbers as low as 2 million).
The headquarters of the religion is situated on Mount Carmel, near Haifa in Israel. Here there is a shrine to Bab, a grand archive, and the world administrative centre. The tomb of Baha'ullah is in the nearby city of Akko.
Baha'i claims to be a universal religion. It calls for better social conditions for the underprivileged, mutual love, harmony between races and religions, equality of the sexes, one language for all, one education for all, nonresistance, bearing injustice with rebellion, and one religion that takes the essence from all the larger religions. Austerities are not welcomed in Baha'i; people should feel happy. There are no priests in Baha'i, but until 1957 the guardian of the faith was a descendant of Baha'ullah. Since then, there has been an elected leader of the religion. Local congregations are called "spiritual assembly", baytu l-adl, and led by a council of 9 members. There are no rituals and, except for the writings of Baha'ullah and Abdu l-Baha', no sacred texts either.
The religion's literature has been translated into more than 350 languages. The spiritual assembly takes care of the treasury. The Baha'is that live in Iran have faced terrible persecution by the governments since the Iranian revolution of 1979.