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Friday, April 6 11:27 AM SGT

Bahai gardens in Israel impress all religions

HAIFA, Israel, April 6 (AFP) -

Nestled between Haifa's dated high-rises and pre-fab apartment blocs, the majestic terraced gardens of the Bahai faith were a sight for the sore eyes of an Orthodox Jewish man, who furiously snapped photos of the stone shrine the gardens consecrate.

Behind him, a group of Muslim women in the traditional hijab headdress and several Bahais took in the commanding view of Haifa Bay and, beyond it, Lebanon, which this perch atop Mount Carmel affords.

The multi-ethnic gathering would have made Baha'ullah -- Persian founder of the Bahai faith, which has its international headquarters on the lush grounds on the slopes overlooking Haifa -- proud.

"The teachings of Baha'ullah have to do fundamentally with unity," said Douglas Samimi-Moore, program director of the Bahai office of public information, as he looked down at one of several fountains adorning the 225-meter (750-feet) drop on which the gardens grow.

The gardens are the culmination of a 10-year, 250-million-dollar project to beautify the mountainside where Bahai prophet Siyyid Ali Muhammad -- known to Bahais as The Bab -- is buried in a red-domed shrine.

Funded by donations from members of the faith's five-million-strong cadre of believers worldwide, the gardens, designed in nine concentric circles around the burial shrine, will be officially opened on May 22 in a music-filled ceremony at the foot of Mount Carmel.

In 1844, The Bab, revered as an Iranian descendent of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, declared that he was a messenger of God dispatched to herald the imminent arrival of a new prophet. He was executed in Persia shortly thereafter for his views.

One of his followers, Mirza Husayn -- known to Bahais as Baha'ullah, or "the glory of God" -- declared in 1863 that he was the messenger whose arrival the Bab had foretold. He was subsequently jailed in the Ottoman prison city of Acre, in modern-day Israel.

He lived out the rest of his life as a prisoner of the Ottomans, but during this period solidified his reputation among Bahais, or followers of Baha, as a manifestation of God on earth.

Today, Baha'ullah's teachings resonate with Bahais throughout the world as the logical extension to the world's myriad, religions.

"Because this is a progressive religion, I couldn't, in a sense, see myself going back (to one of the older faiths)," said Michelle Murphy, special assistant in the inaugural events office.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic.

Following the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran launched a brutal campaign against its Bahai population, leaving some 200 followers dead, said Anne Boyle, who became a Bahai 28 years ago.

Some Muslim nations view the Bahais as agents of Israel because of their Haifa base, while in some countries they are forbidden to practice or are viewed as a cult.

Israel, however, does not see it this way, Bahai officials said.

"The relationships have always been good since the founding of the state," said Albert Lincoln, Bahai secretary general.

In fact, said Glen Fullmer, senior information officer at the office of public information, Haifa -- whose mayor has called the gardens, with their countless species of colorful flowers and herbs, the "eighth wonder of the world" -- moved one of its main streets to adapt to the gardens's aesthetic.

The Bahais are further afforded official status at the United Nations, where the group is accredited as a non-governmental organization, Fullmer said.

In addition to fighting for unity and against prejudice, Samimi-Moore said, Bahai practice involves meditating and studying texts penned by The Bab and Baha'ullah, many of which are kept in the archives on Mount Carmel.

"There are no prescribed rituals in the Bahai community," he said.

Premarital sex and alcohol, however, are forbidden to Bahais, Murphy said, "which in this society can be challenging".

Fariburz Sahba, who designed the terraces, said the site employs state-of-the-art irrigation systems to save water, scarce in this arid region, and is built with Israeli stone quarried from the northern Galilee region.

"This is one of the two most precious holy places in the world," he said, referring also to Baha'ullah's burial site in Acre, across Haifa Bay.

In this violent region, Secretary General Lincoln said, he hopes the gardens can serve as an example of "the victory of love over violence".

"It is about the way the human spirit is expressed through concrete realization. In the long run, these divisions... will give way to love," he said.

©Copyright 2001, AFP

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