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Web posted Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Dedicating a holy place

Michael O'Neal, secretary of the Baha'i Community of Savannah/Chatham County, watches a live telecast from Israel of the official opening of the Terraces of the Shrine of the Bab at Savannah State University on Tuesday.
--Stephen Berend/Savannah Morning News

Local members of the Baha'i Faith participate, via satellite, in ceremonies opening the spiritual and administrative center of their religion.

By Ann Stifter
Savannah Morning News

Michael O'Neal rolled his swivel chair close to a TV and outstretched his hands as if to say, "Behold."

Videos flashing in front of him showed how a 10-year, $250-million holy terrace came to be.

A half hour later, when a live satellite broadcast started, O'Neal leaned forward some more, intent on absorbing every aspect of a ceremony that dedicated gardens built in Israel for his religion.

"Whew, isn't it exquisite," he said. "There is nothing like that on this planet."

O'Neal sat among a small number of people who share his faith, a group eclipsed by the thousands who sat at Tuesday's ceremony overseas. But the local diversity was just as grand as the crowd an ocean away, a crowd from 200 countries who wore native attire -- some shielding their heads with scarves, others showing off colored stripes painted across their faces.

As secretary of the Baha'i Community of Savannah/Chatham County, O'Neal sat with a pediatrician born in India, a woman originally from the country of Luxemburg and a high school freshman.

They applauded as cameras panned the verdant circles containing lamp posts that resembled massive lilies-of-the valley and fountains backlit by orange bulbs.

To Dr. Fariborz Zaer, the significance of the terraces stretched beyond the physical. To him, they represented world unification.

He didn't see just pretty gardens, but beauty uniting all people.

"It's a symbol of a triumph of love over hatred," he said.

Zaer joined 10 other men and women and two teen-agers who met in the Savannah State University Library to watch the live satellite feed from Israel.

They surrounded themselves with four large-screen TVs and raised volumes to highlight the harps and French horns.

To Cecile Bigatin, the ceremony exemplified an attribute of her faith -- the oneness of mankind and of religion.

"It's probably the most significant religious event in this century," said Lynda Adamson. "It heralds a new beginning of world peace."

For 14-year-old Siobhain Rivera, a freshman at Savannah Arts Academy who is surrounded by art and music at school and at home, the terraces and their opening ceremony touched a deeper part.

"This is nothing short of divinely inspired," she said.

Faith reporter Ann Stifter may be reached at 652-0332.

About the Baha'i Faith

The religion was founded in Iran in the mid-19th century by Mirza Hoseyn 'Ali Nuri, known as Baha' Ullah (Arabic: "Glory of God"). The cornerstone of Baha'i belief is the conviction that Baha' Ullah and his forerunner, known as the Báb, were manifestations of God, who in his essence is unknowable. The principal tenets are the unity of all religions and the unity of humanity. Baha'is believe all founders of the world's great religions have been manifestations of God and agents of a progressive divine plan for the education of the human race. Despite their differences, the world's great religions teach an identical truth, according to the Baha'is. Baha' Ullah's function was to overcome the disunity of religions and establish a universal faith. Baha'is believe in the oneness of humanity and devote themselves to the abolition of racial, class and religious prejudices. The bulk of Baha'i teachings is concerned with social ethics. The faith has no priesthood and does not observe ritual forms of worship. Membership in the Baha'i community is open to all who profess faith in Baha' Ullah and accept his teachings. There are no initiation ceremonies, no sacraments and no clergy. Every Baha'i, however, is under the spiritual obligation to:

* pray daily.

* abstain totally from narcotics, alcohol or any substances that affect the mind.

* practice monogamy.

* obtain the consent of parents to marriage.

* attend the Nineteen Day Feast on the first day of each month of the Baha'i calendar.

* If capable, those between the ages of 15 and 70 are required to fast 19 days a year, going without food or drink from sunrise to sunset.

The Nineteen Day Feast unites the Baha'is for prayer, reading of scriptures, discussion of community activities and for the enjoyment of each other's company. (Source:


* The Báb -- ("the Gate"), one of the first two founders of the Baha'i Faith. His remains are buried in the golden-domed shrine on Mount Carmel, which was completed in 1953.

* Mount Carmel -- located in Haifa, Israel and known as "the mountain of the Lord. "

* Terraces of the Shrine of the Bab -- dedicated on Tuesday with a live satellite broadcast. The 19 terraces stretch a kilometer up Mount Carmel. They represent Báb and his first 18 followers. The link of nine concentric gardens radiate from opposite sides of the shrine. During construction, workers had to lower and move busy avenues. The project took 10 years and cost $250 million, funded by voluntary contributions from members of the worldwide Baha'i community, which has more than 5 million members. Two new administrative buildings were also completed.

* The Baha'i Community of Savannah/Chatham County has about 60 members. It's center at 2416 Waters Ave. is under renovation. (Source: Baha'i World Centre, Haifa, Israel; Michael O'Neal)

©Copyright 2001, Savannah Morning News

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