Bahá'í gardens of Haifa: Growing seeds of peace in the Middle East
with audio by the author
Like a lone flower in a smoldering junk heap, the Bahá'í gardens in Haifa, Israel mock the landscape of grim images rising in the news of the Holy Land. Ten years in the making and at the cost of just a few fighter planes ($250 million) 19 terraced gardens of eucalyptus and gnarled olive trees, flowers and ivy are both headquarters for the Bahá'í faith, and what the mayor of Haifa, Amram Mitzna, proudly calls "The Eighth Wonder of the World."
Transforming a full kilometer of the barren face of ancient Mount Carmel, the Haifa gardens, also known as the Terraces of Mount Carmel, are a monument to the expectation that spirituality is the ultimate salvation for this region.
A stream of visitors from all over the world flows quietly through these tranquil estates, not only to view their wondrous beauty, not only to experience a rare moment of serenity, not only to take pictures—but to pray for peace. As Albert Lincoln, secretary-general of the Bahá'í International Community, expresses it, the gardens represent "the victory of love over violence."
The faith tradition of the Bahá'ís who built these gardens recognizes and respects the essential unity and common themes of all religions. Bahá'ís strive to live without any prejudice, recognize the equality of the sexes and confidently await the divinely impelled emergence of a new era of spiritually based peace.
As they well know, this "victory of love" is hard-won. A religious minority of five million with a history of persecution in the Middle East, Bahá'ís have had many opportunities to put their faith to the test. For example in Iran, where Bahá'í was founded, it is still not recognized as a legitimate religion, and thousands have left the country to escape the persecution that began in the 1980s, when about 200 Bahá'ís were executed.
The Mount Carmel gardens symbolize in such a practical way the results of adhering to the spiritual core common to the religious traditions of all the parties involved in the conflict in the Middle East. The site is tended by dozens of local workers from all cultures and religions as well as Bahá'í volunteers from around the world. That spiritual core isn't just a theoretical monotheism, it is the manifestation of Deity as Love itself, the harmonizing Principle that neutralizes the fear and hatred fueling the warring factions.
Even the term "warring factions" is misleading, since, as many observers have pointed out, there can never be a military solution to the problems in this region. Palestinians and Israelis will have to face the fact that they are always going to be living in each other's midst and so must find some common basis for coexistence and cooperation.
The steadfast love and grace that brought the Haifa gardens to fruition in this anguished desert offers not only a symbol of unity, but a model for its implementation. If the heart of spirituality is love, then it must be more than just loving acts like those that established these gardens, but the law of divine Love itself that brings people together to share the beauty and harmony of existence. As Secretary-General Lincoln puts it: "It is about the way the human spirit is expressed through concrete realization. In the long run, these divisions…will give way to love."
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