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22/05/2001 23:15 - (SA)

Bahais open terraced garden

Haifa, Israel - As the bright sun dimmed on Tuesday over Haifas Mount Carmel, hundreds of white lights were illuminated along the mountains cascading western cliff throwing tiny shadows over the majestic terraced gardens of the Bahai faith.

Three thousand Bahais descended on this coastal city from as far afoot as Uganda, Samoa and Australia to celebrate the grand opening of the massive gardens consecrating the burial site of the faith's founder.

The gardens, tucked into the steep slopes of the impressive mountain, are designed in nine concentric circles around the shrine where Bahai prophet Siyyid Ali Muhammad - known to Bahais as "The Bab" - is buried.

Light-filled ceremony

Funded by donations from members of the five-million strong Bahai population worldwide, the gardens were officially opened to the public on Tuesday evening in a light-filled ceremony at the foot of Mount Carmel featuring premier performances of musical compositions by Bahai composers.

Hundreds of spectators and police officers watched and applauded the proceedings from the rooftops of apartment buildings surrounding the gardens, which are covered by numerous drought-resistant plants in an effort to save water, a scarce commodity in this arid region.

The gardens, which sit on a 225m steep slope overlooking Haifa Bay, are the culmination of a 10-year, US$250-million project.

< B>Peace project

Although eight months of Israeli-Palestinian violence have hit Israels tourism industry hard, and security for the event was tight, politics was far from the minds of most of the fervent pilgrims.

"I came especially because of my faith," said Doris Toeg, a Canadian pilgrim. "I wanted to be here for the opening of these very important and sacred terraces. Its a dream come true for me."

In fact, while in Jerusalem and Netanya talk of late has revolved around F-16 fighter jets and suicide bombs, atop the Bahais lush mountaintop enclave, peace is the operative word.

"We believe peace is a long-term process," a Bahai spokesperson told reporters. "The whole peace process is something more than signing papers. Peace begins in the hearts of everyone, and we're working on that."

Persian roots

The Bahai faith was founded in Persia in 1863 when Bahaullah, or "the glory of God," declared himself the divine messenger whose arrival had been foretold nearly 20 years before by The Bab.

The Bab, revered as an Iranian descendent of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, was executed in the mid-19th century in Persia and Bahaullah lived out the remainder of his life as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire.

His message of unity for mankind, however, resonates until today with the diverse Bahai population across the globe.

Following the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran launched a brutal campaign against its Bahai population, leaving some 200 followers dead. In some countries the Bahais are considered a cult or Zionist agents, because of their affiliation with Israel.

Picking up the neighbourhood

Indeed, the Bahais relations with Israel have been good. The municipality of Haifa even moved a street to accommodate the garden's aesthetic symmetry.

In addition to pleasing the eye, however, the gardens have given a veritable shot in the arm to Haifas Arab community, a portion of which lives in the historic German Colony at the mountains base.

"The base of the mountain, which is an historically Arab neighbourhood, was falling into ruins," Bahai senior information officer Glen Fullmer said.

When the municipality of Haifa projected that one million tourists would visit the site each year, however, it launched what Fullmer called an "urban renewal campaign" in anticipation.

With the advent of new restaurants and boutiques and the restoration of the historic homes in the German Colony, he added, property values on the garden's perimeter increased.

The relative ease with which Arabs and Jews coexist by Mount Carmel makes the city seem a microcosm for the Bahais' global neighbourhood. - Sapa-AFP

©Copyright 2001, South African Press Association

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