Baha'i News -- HA'ARETZ - Bahai feel bashed by local media
Bahai feel bashed by local media
By Charlotte Halle
The Bahai movement, which plowed $250 million into re-landscaping the gardens of its Haifa world headquarters,
charges that it has been unfairly treated by the local media.
Articles have appeared in the local and national press accusing the Bahai World Center of receiving
government tax reimbursements which it is not entitled to, of having unethical links with the Labor Party, of
using excessive amounts of water to maintain the gardens and, most absurdly, of worshiping idols and using
incense during religious practices.
Officials are particularly furious about an "untrue and unfair" article that appeared in the Haifa weekly
newspaper Zman Haifa earlier this month, which claimed that the world center had received millions of shekels
in irregular payments from the Israeli government. The Bahais are particularly distressed because they say the
newspaper gave them just one hour to respond to the allegations before the article went to press.
"It upsets us that people look for an ulterior, negative motive in what we are doing," says Glen Fullmer,
senior information officer at the center. He attributes the attacks to the Bahai community's dramatic shift
from "obscurity" to "high-profile" target for media coverage following the opening of the new garden project.
"We were silent citizens," he says, "and sometimes the story we have to tell - that we are beautifying our
holy places with voluntary contributions from Bahais around the world on a nonprofit basis - just doesn't seem
to add up."
Based on an acceptance of all world religions, the Bahai faith supports the unification of humanity and the
emergence of a global civilization. Its principles forbid accepting donations from any individual or
institution outside of the faith.
The opening of the gardens surrounding the world-famous golden-domed Shrine of the Bab - a tranquil haven
for visiting pilgrims - is the result of 15 years of planning and construction, and a $250-million investment
by the Bahai community. The center signed an agreement with the Israeli government in 1987, entitling it to tax
exemptions on the basis of the fact that it is an international religious, nonprofit organization. The center
stands to receive a tax refund on the order of $20 million.
The Zman Haifa article was based on questions about tax reimbursement that were submitted by an independent
auditor to the Ministry of Tourism.
Bahai sources claim that all the auditor's queries were satisfactorily answered, and that it was
"defamatory" and unfair of the newspaper to portray the questions as based in fact. Furthermore, the world
center placed a full-page advertisement in the newspaper a week later, refuting the paper's claims with quotes
from Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Finance officials. The Bahai center is still considering taking legal
action against the newspaper for the "malicious and unprofessional" article.
Zman Haifa editor Sharon Gal told Anglo File that reporters had given the Bahais about seven hours to
repond to the claims. Due to a "technical error," their response to the allegations had not appeared, but added
that a response was printed in full the following week, the same week the full-page advertisement was
published. He added that many editors would not have agreed to print the advertisement of the Bahais because it
was so overtly critical of the newspaper.
Murray Smith, deputy secretary-general of the Bahai World Center, says the gardens have given a "big boost"
to the social and economic life of Haifa, with almost 35,000 Israelis visiting the site every week since June.
This represents a radical rise in the number of day visitors to the city, at a time when tourism is at an
all-time low. He emphasized that entrance to the gardens is free and that they are open daily.
The opening of the gardens, Smith adds, has forced the Bahais into the "limelight," although they prefer to
keep a low profile, to avoid "upsetting people in a way that will be of negative consequence to Bahais in other
Smith dismisses as "completely false and erroneous" the claims in the media that the Bahais worship idols
and use incense. He also outlined the world center's strict regulations - built into the planning of the
gardens - stipulating avoidance of water-intensive plants, and use of state-of-the-art irrigation technology.
He adds that many "positive" articles also appeared in the press following the opening of the gardens.
In general, says Smith, the Bahai center has enjoyed good relations with all Israeli governments, a fact
that has not escaped the attention of the government of Iran. There, Bahai believers are persecuted under the
fundamentalist Islamic regime, which accuses them of being Zionist collaborators. Baha'u'llah, the founder of
the monotheistic Bahai faith - which broke off from Islam 150 years ago - arrived in the Holy Land from Iran as
a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire in 1868 and died near Acre in 1892. According to Smith, when the Bahais
arrived in Palestine, Baha'u'llah instructed his followers that they must not seek or accept converts here, a
rule which is still strictly observed today.
The elected governing body of the world's Bahai community, the Universal House of Justice, has its seat in
Haifa on Mount Carmel, adjacent to the Shrine of the Bab and the new gardens. Haifa and Acre together comprise
the international spiritual and administrative center for the five million followers of the Bahai faith, of
whom 800 live in Israel, volunteering for a time at the Haifa headquarters before returning home.
©Copyright 2002, Ha'artz (Israel)
Page last updated/revised 041602
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