Translation from Magazine Masa Akher
By: Hagit Gur
[ca. 1995exact date not known. Some facts given in this article
HAIFA, THE HOLY CITY:
THE WORLD CENTER OF THE BAHA'I FAITH
Very few in Israel would necessarily describe Haifa as a
religious center. For the five million Baha'i believers over the world
Haifa is Mekka and Jerusalem. The Baha'i Faith, one of the youngest
faiths in the world, has succeeded in acquiring more believers than
similar faiths. Why has this religious revelation particularly gained
success, while other messianic revelations were listed as quirks of
history? What do the Baha'is believe in and how do they lead their
lives? Why do they invest so much money and efforts in the development
of the shrines and the gardens?
During my adolescence years I had several refuge places, to which I
escaped from high school: the court, the beach, the Carmel forests and
the Baha'i Garden. The Baha'i garden was for me at the time just like a
trip abroad: a kind of small paradise in Haifa, with rows of flowers,
curved pathways, twitters of birds, gold on top and blue under. The
Baha'i Faith was then grasped by me as a mystic-spiritual, unknown and
unclear entity. I sat in the wonderful gardens for long hours, read
books; I had thoughts, but did not ask questions. I do not know what
paralyzed my natural curiosity, was it high-school or was it the beauty
and mystery of the Shrine.
Many years later I encountered the Baha'i spirituality at the end of the
world, in St. Lucia in the Caribbean Islands. I then had a chance to ask
all the questions I did not ask in my youth. I was invited to dinner by
a nice couple from St. Lucia. We ate, drank, laughed, the baby climbed
onto the table, we spoke about children, borders, countries, regimes and
religions and I learned that my host, Juliana and Marcus, belong to the
followers of the Baha'i Faith. In the informal atmosphere I dived into
the subject with demanding curiosity. They answered my questions with
typical calm, demonstrating satisfaction from my great interest.
PRAISE FOR HUMANISM
Juliana and Marcus are very active in the Baha'i community of St. Lucia.
She is a native of the island, a kindergarten teacher, about thirty
years old. He is of American origin, an ex-teacher and at present an
established trader, white, about forty five years old. Juliana, a witty
woman, full of energy and love for life, told us that she became a
believer in the Baha'i Faith at the age of twelve. "The different
churches invited us, the children, to Sunday religion classes and the
Baha'i Faith classes charmed me more than all the others. It contained
love and softness. We were not threatened with punishments as in the
Catholic Church". Both visited Israel during the last Baha'i World
Convention; they say they are in love with Israel and want to come back
In St. Lucia I also met Roni Schneider, a retired Californian lawyer who
has been living in the Caribbean Islands for several years. Roni is a
Jew who, at the beginning of the sixties, following his Christian wife,
became a Baha'i. "In the Baha'i Faith I discovered the universality,
beauty and humanity. This is a faith that integrates all the other
faiths together, and it seemed to me as the most logical faith". His
parents objected to his choice, but 15 years later they too were
convinced. His children are active in the Baha'i community in
Roni answered my questions with great enthusiasm. He explained to me the
principles of the Baha'i Faith, which sounded as a song of glory for
western humanism. Justice, equality, peace, search for truth and beauty,
equality between human beings, and equality for women. Suspiciously I
tried to ask undermining questions to find out if there is a gap between
theory and practice: "How many women are there in your elected
institutes? How do you educate towards equality for women? What is the
practical significance of your beliefs? What projects do you operate?
How much money is invested in the wonderful shrines and how much in
human beings?" The answers were diplomatic and covered with a peel. The
Baha'is, too, navigate in a world of complex reality. They adjusted
themselves to it, and fully utilize the capitalistic economics, while
implementing their principles without clashing with the
A YOUNG FAITH
The Baha'i Faith is one of the youngest faiths in the world. It started
in 1844 in the city of Shiraz in Iran, with the appearance of the Bab,
the forerunner, Said Ali Mohamed. The Bab announced that his task was to
pave the way for the coming of the great prophet, who will open a new
chapter in the lives of humanity, a chapter of tranquillity, peace and
unity. The Iranian authorities persecuted him and in 1850 he was
executed. 20,000 of his followers were murdered that year. The Bab is
buried today in the golden dome
Shrine on Mount Carmel.
In the six years of his activity, thousands of Shi'i Moslems who awaited
the revelation, gathered around him. This appeared in the image of
Mirzah Hussein Ali, son of a minister in the Shah's courtyard. He was
called the Baha'u'llah (Glory of God) and his followers were named after
him - Baha'is. Thanks to his high rank the Iranian officials did not
execute him, but exiled him to Akko prison, accompanied by some of his
followers. For 24 years Baha'u'llah was in prison and house confinement
and wrote the basic books of the Baha'i Faith. The laws and the songs
that he wrote are now compiled into about 100 books. He died in 1892 and
was buried in Bahji, north of Akko.
His son Abbas Effendi, who was also called Abdul Baha (Servant of the
Glory), continued his way. He too sat in prison, but was released in
1908 after the the Young Turks' upheaval. He settled in Haifa and
defined it as a holy city for the Baha'i Faith. Abdul Baha explained his
father's writings and traveled to preach in Europe and America. In one
of the letters he sent to a Protestant priest in Hamburg he wrote: "Our
faith is the unity of the human race. We do not object to other faiths.
But we call them all to strive for the unity of humanity. All human
beings should drink from the spring of Baha'u'llah's teaching in order
to stop wars, fighting and troubles".
Abdul Baha died in 1921 and was buried in Haifa, in the same Shrine
where the forerunner was buried. Before his death he appointed his
grandson Shoghi Effendi who was called "Shoggi Rabani" (Guardian of the
Faith) as the successor of the spiritual leadership. Shoghi Rabani, who
studied in an American university and continued in Oxford, translated
the Baha'i Holy Writings to English, which made able spreading of the
Faith in the U.S.A. and Canada. He married a Canadian woman, Ruhia Rabani,
who continued to preach the Faith even after his death. He died suddenly
in London in 1957, after he had established a body of 27 members - "The
Hands of the Cause" - to lead the Baha'is. From 1963 onwards, the leadership
institutes are elected by democratic elections.
The Baha'i Faith believers number about five million people and belong
to more than two thousand different ethnic groups. They live in 230
countries, are associated in 18,000 local spiritual assemblies and 172
national spiritual assemblies. They operate about 1,500 local projects
for education, agriculture and health, 600 schools, two universities,
six radio stations and twenty three publishing houses.
Today the Baha'i community is lead by a group of nine dignitaries who
are elected by secret ballot every five years. There aren't any women
among them. Women, in the only religion in the world which professes
equality between the sexes, may be elected for any of the community's
lower institutes, but cannot be members of the House of Justice, the
upper legislative body of the Baha'is.
There is no professional clergy in the Baha'i Faith. The Baha'i Faith
does not believe in mediators between God and man. The spiritual leaders
are elected by the community. The elections start at the local
communities, who elect "spiritual assemblies", each of which is
assembled by nine members, men and women. The national representatives
assemble once in five years in Haifa and choose the international
leadership. The candidates should be distinguished by lofty character
and personal qualities.
To become a Baha'i one must believe in the principles of the Faith and
belong to the local community. Joining does not involve any special
religious ritual. The Baha'is accept within their lines people from all
faiths and races. A Baha'i community was formed in every country the
Baha'is came to. Not in Israel though.
This may be surprising, since Haifa serves as the world center of the
Baha'is. Here the Shrine and the Universal House of Justice were built
and here reside the nine elected people. There are about 600 Baha'i
volunteers in Israel, who arrived from other countries and who are
employed in guarding the Holy Places.
A Jew who wants to become a Baha'i would have to emigrate from Israel.
Baha'u'llah promised the Sultan that he will not deal in missionary
within the borders of Palestine. Even today in Israel it can be assumed
that the joining of Jewish believers, who are convinced by the Baha'i
truth, would arouse the resistance of the orthodox establishment. I
asked if this is a ruling which could be changed in the future, if the
Universal House of Justice has the authority to decide differently.
Murray Smith, the Deputy Secretary General, smiled and said "who knows,
maybe when there will be peace in the area".
The Baha'is benefit by the good relationship they maintain with the
Israeli establishment. The Baha'i Centre enjoys the status of a
diplomatic representation, a status which accords it, for instance, a
right to import tax-free official cars, tax exemption for materials
imported from Europe for the construction of the Shrine, prices of which
are estimated at tens of millions of dollars.
The Israeli authorities on their part, especially the Municipality of
Haifa, have a clear interest in maintaining a good relationship with the
Baha'is. Construction of the House of Justice, in which millions of
dollars were invested, is a source of employment for hundreds of Haifa
citizens. On completing the expansion project, the Universal Center of
Justice will become an attraction source for tourists, just like the
golden dome Shrine. The regular operational expenditure for the Baha'i
holy places (about 6 million dollars a year) makes the Baha'i Centre an
economic factor which cannot be ignored.
UNITY EQUALITY AND BEAUTY
The basic belief of the Baha'i Faith is that all faiths are right. They
are equal, none are superior, since "the source of all the faiths is
divine. They were revealed by God in different places and at different
periods, according to the needs and the abilities of human beings". God
granted guidance to our Father Abraham in his time, and so to Moses in
his time, to Jesus, Mohammed, Zoroaster, Krishna, and to Buddha.
Recently God was revealed to Mirzah Hussein Ali who is the Baha'u'llah".
The Baha'i Faith, according to its followers, is a continuation of the
existing faiths and being the last of them, is the most suitable for
people in our time.
The principles of the faith, as shown in the Baha'i writings, are
humanistic and modern in substance. Baha'is believe in the unity of the
world and of the human race. Their pamphlets say that "the essential
relationships must join all the countries and people as members of a
human family". It seems that this prophecy is indeed coming true with
the help of Internet and computer networks.
From the belief in the unity of the human race comes the recognition in
the need for world peace and equality, brotherhood and love. There is no
contradiction according to the Baha'i Faith between science and
religion, and it is essential to stress the education for free choice
and an independent search for truth. Beauty is a central value and from
this stems the inexhaustible culturing of the gardens and shrines.
Beauty represents in the eyes of the Baha'is the possibility for
unification of the human race and purity of the soul.
The religious duties arising from the Baha'i Faith are acts for human
rights and bringing to an end all inequality based on difference of
colour, race or sex, and exaggerated economic and social differences. In
the explanatory booklets of the Baha'is in Israel they are required to
establish education which negates prejudices and false beliefs and
encourages friendship and brotherhood. They claim that they preceded the
United Nation's Bill of Human Rights with their beliefs. International
parties, which were established after World War II, such as The Common
Market, the League of the Arab States, the Organization of American
Countries, the Organization of Nations of South-Eastern Asia, the
Caribbean Community, receive their open support.
Believers of the Baha'i Faith are bid to refrain from alcoholic drinks,
drugs, gambling, theft, violence, adultery, homosexuality, backbiting
and defamation. The Baha'is are forbidden to participate in party
activities and they consider themselves unpolitical.
Murray Smith told me that he was a politician in New Zealand: "When I
joined the Baha'i Faith I wasn't a member of parliament by then. If I
had been a member of parliament I would have had to resign. In fact I
reached the Baha'i Faith on one of the election tours I had conducted. I
then met a woman who told my wife and me about the Baha'is. She gave my
wife books which convinced her to join the Faith. This happened a year
before I was elected for parliament. 19 years later I joined too". "And
didn't you miss politics?" I asked curiously. "We are active in social
matters. It is not direct political activity. From my experience I have
learned that the party political system will not solve the problems of
humanity", he answered. One of the principles (according to a pamphlet I
was given) is to find a spiritual solution for economic problems.
REFRAINING FROM RITUALS
The Baha'is are committed to pray at least once a day. During prayer
they turn towards [Baha'u'llah's] tomb in Akko. They can pray anywhere
and at any convenient hour for them.
The Baha'i year is divided into 19 months consisting of 19 days each.
Every beginning of a month is a kind of feast in which the members of
the community meet, talk, pray and eat together. The new year begins on
21 March. The month before is a month of fasting and praying. During
this period the Baha'is refrain from eating and drinking from sunrise to
sunset, and pray special prayers in the morning and in the evening.
Additional feasts are the birth days and death days of the Bab and
The Baha'i Faith usually refrains from rituals: Prayer is personal and
the wedding ceremony is very simple. The bride and bridegroom must get
the parents' permission and say: "We join each other with the will of
God". Besides this, every couple may celebrate according to its own
wish. The wedding party is usually influenced by the place and culture
of where it is taking place.
Baha'u'llah set several rules for burials. A person should, for
instance, be buried at a distance of one hour from the place of death,
with his head towards the "Baha'u'llah's" tomb in Akko. He also set a
permanent version of prayer which is read during the funeral.
In contrast to other religions, the Baha'i Faith does not pass by
heritage from parents to children. The children should express their
wish to belong to it, first at the age of 15 and again at 21, then they
are also granted rights to vote for the religious institutes.
The Baha'is were persecuted in Iran in the 19th century already and the
persecutions continued even during the Haitolla periods. Iran government
claimed in the past that they had collaborated with the Shah, and now
they are accused of collaboration with Zionism and Imperialism.
Haitolla Humeini executed many Baha'is, and in order to receive the
bodies for burial the families were forced to pay for the bullets with
which the condemned were shot. The Baha'is consider the persecutions of
the Iranian rule as genocide and a crime towards humanity.
Not only in Iran was the situation difficult. The Baha'is were also
persecuted in South Africa, during the Apartheid rule. In a talk I had
with Tahiri, who grew up in South Africa and now works for the Office
for Statistics in the Universal Seat of Justice, she said that her
father had joined the Baha'i Faith in the early 50's. She said that as a
Christian in South Africa, he felt a distance from the uniform and from
the white clergy people. He was convinced that the Baha'is, who ate and
drank with him, meant real equality.
Meetings with the Baha'i community in South Africa involved application
for licences from the police and personal risk. It was difficult to have
a meeting with white and black believers. The blacks were prohibited to
enter white areas and the whites were accused of subversion activity
against the Apartheid. The community members persisted and the mixed
meetings took place.
Tahiri is named for a woman, the daughter of a Moslem-Persian father,
who, in opposition to the tradition of the time (mid 19 century) taught
her the Koran. He put her behind a curtain when he was teaching Koran to
men. One day when the father asked a question which the men could not
answer, Tahiri could not hold back and answered a correct answer and
exposed herself. The men were very angry. She acted for the education of
women and many rose against her. She was finally murdered and her last
words before death were: "Even after my death, women will continue to
fight until equality is achieved".
In spite of continued oppression, the Baha'is continue to support all
religions. When I asked Tahiri how forbearance is possible amidst
religious persecution, she answered with typical calmness: "Islam is a
religion in which the Baha'i Faith grew, therefore the Iranians are
highly threatened by the new faith, and cannot recognize it. In many
cases people use religion to explain their wrong doings, but this use
does not testify to the religion itself".
I do not know where they hide the anger. Maybe the divine enlightenment
neutralizes it. In the Bahji gardens I met an Iranian couple who found
shelter from persecution in Sweden. They too radiated the same smiling
religious tranquility. I could not feel the pain, anger or helplessness
which is so natural in their situation.
GOLD AND ITALIAN MARBLE
The Baha'is are working continuously to develop their center in Haifa.
The golden domed Shrine was built in 1953. It is built of Italian marble
and supported by pink granite pillars. The dome is 40 meters high and
coated with 14,000 golden coloured tiles imported from Holland. The
Shrine was planned by a Canadian architect by the name of William
Maxwell, and as in all Baha'i
shrines, it has nine sides symbolizing the nine great religions.
In the Baha'i garden there resides the building of The Universal House
of Justice, which is built in the style of the Greek Parthenon: 58
marble pillars excavated in Greece and xylographed in Italy, and green
roof tiles imported from the USA. The building's area is 11,000 sq.m.,
its height about six stories and it cost 20 million dollars. It was
designed by the Iranian architect Hussein Amanat; it was completed in
1984 and serves as the supreme legislative and administrative seat of
Patrick Ravines, who works in the archives and deals with preserving the
many documents left by Baha'u'llah, the prophet of the Faith, is half
American and half Peruvian. He has been living in Israel for eight years
with his wife and three children. "It is impossible to see the documents
now", he says. "We have not completed sorting the documents and there is
a lot of work. In the future, when the sorting is over, the public can
peruse the papers. A special hall will be allocated for this and
investigators will be able to study the Baha'i origins".
The building and development momentum will continue until the end of
2000, and 250 million dollars will be invested in it, state the Baha'is'
representatives in Israel. Apart from two additional new buildings, the
Baha'is plan a variety of terraces, fountains and gardens. Excavations
now underway will become in the future graceful pavilions surrounded by
gardens. Some of the terraces under development can already be seen
below the golden domed Shrine and above it. Thus a continuity of
passages for pedestrians will be formed, tunnels and bridges will be
built to cross the streets Yafe Nof, Hatzionut Avenue and Abbas. The
planned terraces will be magnificently beautiful, the Baha'is promise.
There will be fountains, symmetric gardens and circles of precisely cut
"Where is the money from?" I ask and Murray Smith says that the money
originates in donations by Baha'is all over the world. "We do not
receive donations from whoever is not a Baha'i. Each person donates
anonymously, according to his will and ability".
"The Baha'i community, if so, is very rich?"
"Most of the Baha'i population in the third world is poor by every
criterion. Two million out of the five million believers live in India.
It is impossible to say therefore that the Baha'is are rich. What is
important is the measure of sacrifice to God, not the amount of money
contributed. For a person living in a village in the Third World, a
dollar might symbolize a greater sacrifice than 100,000 dollars by a
contributor from the Western World. Giving is a spiritual experience
between the believers and their creator".
Additional shrines were built in Bahpour, India, in Wilmette near
Chicago, in Frankfurt, Germany, in Sidney , Australia, in Panama and in
Kampalla, capital of Uganda.
From Haifa we traveled to visit Baha'u'llah's tomb in Bahji, about two
kilometers north of Akko. Wonderful gardens surround the site and one
can meet there Baha'i volunteers in the course of their "year if
service" in Israel. They work in gardening and guarding, and all of them
were very friendly and apparently eager to converse. Walking around near
them were pilgrims and people who were saying their prayers, and they
too were happy to answer questions and become friendly. But this
friendliness is somewhat distanced, not touching, a kind that maintains
the delicate, invisible boundaries.
On the way we tried to understand the difficulty to rupture the
public-relation type kindness which characterizes the people we met.
Everyone was so very "nice", we were offered drinks and cookies in a
large, air conditioned and reception hall. The interviewed people
arrived on time and agreed to any request, but we left with a feeling of
sterility. If external beauty symbolizes inner quality, then just as one
cannot run about unrestrained in the orderly garden pathways, similarly
is the Baha'i righteous soul and compassion packed in a "buttoned" well
Copyright ©1995, Mesa Akher (Israel)