Very few in Israel would necessarily describe Haifa as a religious center. For the five million Baha'i believers over the world Haifa is Mekka and Jerusalem. The Baha'i Faith, one of the youngest faiths in the world, has succeeded in acquiring more believers than similar faiths. Why has this religious revelation particularly gained success, while other messianic revelations were listed as quirks of history? What do the Baha'is believe in and how do they lead their lives? Why do they invest so much money and efforts in the development of the shrines and the gardens?
During my adolescence years I had several refuge places, to which I escaped from high school: the court, the beach, the Carmel forests and the Baha'i Garden. The Baha'i garden was for me at the time just like a trip abroad: a kind of small paradise in Haifa, with rows of flowers, curved pathways, twitters of birds, gold on top and blue under. The Baha'i Faith was then grasped by me as a mystic-spiritual, unknown and unclear entity. I sat in the wonderful gardens for long hours, read books; I had thoughts, but did not ask questions. I do not know what paralyzed my natural curiosity, was it high-school or was it the beauty and mystery of the Shrine.
Many years later I encountered the Baha'i spirituality at the end of the world, in St. Lucia in the Caribbean Islands. I then had a chance to ask all the questions I did not ask in my youth. I was invited to dinner by a nice couple from St. Lucia. We ate, drank, laughed, the baby climbed onto the table, we spoke about children, borders, countries, regimes and religions and I learned that my host, Juliana and Marcus, belong to the followers of the Baha'i Faith. In the informal atmosphere I dived into the subject with demanding curiosity. They answered my questions with typical calm, demonstrating satisfaction from my great interest.
PRAISE FOR HUMANISM
Juliana and Marcus are very active in the Baha'i community of St. Lucia. She is a native of the island, a kindergarten teacher, about thirty years old. He is of American origin, an ex-teacher and at present an established trader, white, about forty five years old. Juliana, a witty woman, full of energy and love for life, told us that she became a believer in the Baha'i Faith at the age of twelve. "The different churches invited us, the children, to Sunday religion classes and the Baha'i Faith classes charmed me more than all the others. It contained love and softness. We were not threatened with punishments as in the Catholic Church". Both visited Israel during the last Baha'i World Convention; they say they are in love with Israel and want to come back again.
In St. Lucia I also met Roni Schneider, a retired Californian lawyer who has been living in the Caribbean Islands for several years. Roni is a Jew who, at the beginning of the sixties, following his Christian wife, became a Baha'i. "In the Baha'i Faith I discovered the universality, beauty and humanity. This is a faith that integrates all the other faiths together, and it seemed to me as the most logical faith". His parents objected to his choice, but 15 years later they too were convinced. His children are active in the Baha'i community in California.
Roni answered my questions with great enthusiasm. He explained to me the principles of the Baha'i Faith, which sounded as a song of glory for western humanism. Justice, equality, peace, search for truth and beauty, equality between human beings, and equality for women. Suspiciously I tried to ask undermining questions to find out if there is a gap between theory and practice: "How many women are there in your elected institutes? How do you educate towards equality for women? What is the practical significance of your beliefs? What projects do you operate? How much money is invested in the wonderful shrines and how much in human beings?" The answers were diplomatic and covered with a peel. The Baha'is, too, navigate in a world of complex reality. They adjusted themselves to it, and fully utilize the capitalistic economics, while implementing their principles without clashing with the authorities.
A YOUNG FAITH
The Baha'i Faith is one of the youngest faiths in the world. It started in 1844 in the city of Shiraz in Iran, with the appearance of the Bab, the forerunner, Said Ali Mohamed. The Bab announced that his task was to pave the way for the coming of the great prophet, who will open a new chapter in the lives of humanity, a chapter of tranquillity, peace and unity. The Iranian authorities persecuted him and in 1850 he was executed. 20,000 of his followers were murdered that year. The Bab is buried today in the golden dome Shrine on Mount Carmel.
In the six years of his activity, thousands of Shi'i Moslems who awaited the revelation, gathered around him. This appeared in the image of Mirzah Hussein Ali, son of a minister in the Shah's courtyard. He was called the Baha'u'llah (Glory of God) and his followers were named after him - Baha'is. Thanks to his high rank the Iranian officials did not execute him, but exiled him to Akko prison, accompanied by some of his followers. For 24 years Baha'u'llah was in prison and house confinement and wrote the basic books of the Baha'i Faith. The laws and the songs that he wrote are now compiled into about 100 books. He died in 1892 and was buried in Bahji, north of Akko.
His son Abbas Effendi, who was also called Abdul Baha (Servant of the Glory), continued his way. He too sat in prison, but was released in 1908 after the the Young Turks' upheaval. He settled in Haifa and defined it as a holy city for the Baha'i Faith. Abdul Baha explained his father's writings and traveled to preach in Europe and America. In one of the letters he sent to a Protestant priest in Hamburg he wrote: "Our faith is the unity of the human race. We do not object to other faiths. But we call them all to strive for the unity of humanity. All human beings should drink from the spring of Baha'u'llah's teaching in order to stop wars, fighting and troubles".
Abdul Baha died in 1921 and was buried in Haifa, in the same Shrine where the forerunner was buried. Before his death he appointed his grandson Shoghi Effendi who was called "Shoggi Rabani" (Guardian of the Faith) as the successor of the spiritual leadership. Shoghi Rabani, who studied in an American university and continued in Oxford, translated the Baha'i Holy Writings to English, which made able spreading of the Faith in the U.S.A. and Canada. He married a Canadian woman, Ruhia Rabani, who continued to preach the Faith even after his death. He died suddenly in London in 1957, after he had established a body of 27 members - "The Hands of the Cause" - to lead the Baha'is. From 1963 onwards, the leadership institutes are elected by democratic elections.
The Baha'i Faith believers number about five million people and belong to more than two thousand different ethnic groups. They live in 230 countries, are associated in 18,000 local spiritual assemblies and 172 national spiritual assemblies. They operate about 1,500 local projects for education, agriculture and health, 600 schools, two universities, six radio stations and twenty three publishing houses.
Today the Baha'i community is lead by a group of nine dignitaries who are elected by secret ballot every five years. There aren't any women among them. Women, in the only religion in the world which professes equality between the sexes, may be elected for any of the community's lower institutes, but cannot be members of the House of Justice, the upper legislative body of the Baha'is.
There is no professional clergy in the Baha'i Faith. The Baha'i Faith does not believe in mediators between God and man. The spiritual leaders are elected by the community. The elections start at the local communities, who elect "spiritual assemblies", each of which is assembled by nine members, men and women. The national representatives assemble once in five years in Haifa and choose the international leadership. The candidates should be distinguished by lofty character and personal qualities.
To become a Baha'i one must believe in the principles of the Faith and belong to the local community. Joining does not involve any special religious ritual. The Baha'is accept within their lines people from all faiths and races. A Baha'i community was formed in every country the Baha'is came to. Not in Israel though.
This may be surprising, since Haifa serves as the world center of the Baha'is. Here the Shrine and the Universal House of Justice were built and here reside the nine elected people. There are about 600 Baha'i volunteers in Israel, who arrived from other countries and who are employed in guarding the Holy Places.
A Jew who wants to become a Baha'i would have to emigrate from Israel. Baha'u'llah promised the Sultan that he will not deal in missionary within the borders of Palestine. Even today in Israel it can be assumed that the joining of Jewish believers, who are convinced by the Baha'i truth, would arouse the resistance of the orthodox establishment. I asked if this is a ruling which could be changed in the future, if the Universal House of Justice has the authority to decide differently. Murray Smith, the Deputy Secretary General, smiled and said "who knows, maybe when there will be peace in the area".
The Baha'is benefit by the good relationship they maintain with the Israeli establishment. The Baha'i Centre enjoys the status of a diplomatic representation, a status which accords it, for instance, a right to import tax-free official cars, tax exemption for materials imported from Europe for the construction of the Shrine, prices of which are estimated at tens of millions of dollars.
The Israeli authorities on their part, especially the Municipality of Haifa, have a clear interest in maintaining a good relationship with the Baha'is. Construction of the House of Justice, in which millions of dollars were invested, is a source of employment for hundreds of Haifa citizens. On completing the expansion project, the Universal Center of Justice will become an attraction source for tourists, just like the golden dome Shrine. The regular operational expenditure for the Baha'i holy places (about 6 million dollars a year) makes the Baha'i Centre an economic factor which cannot be ignored.
UNITY EQUALITY AND BEAUTY
The basic belief of the Baha'i Faith is that all faiths are right. They are equal, none are superior, since "the source of all the faiths is divine. They were revealed by God in different places and at different periods, according to the needs and the abilities of human beings". God granted guidance to our Father Abraham in his time, and so to Moses in his time, to Jesus, Mohammed, Zoroaster, Krishna, and to Buddha. Recently God was revealed to Mirzah Hussein Ali who is the Baha'u'llah". The Baha'i Faith, according to its followers, is a continuation of the existing faiths and being the last of them, is the most suitable for people in our time.
The principles of the faith, as shown in the Baha'i writings, are humanistic and modern in substance. Baha'is believe in the unity of the world and of the human race. Their pamphlets say that "the essential relationships must join all the countries and people as members of a human family". It seems that this prophecy is indeed coming true with the help of Internet and computer networks.
From the belief in the unity of the human race comes the recognition in the need for world peace and equality, brotherhood and love. There is no contradiction according to the Baha'i Faith between science and religion, and it is essential to stress the education for free choice and an independent search for truth. Beauty is a central value and from this stems the inexhaustible culturing of the gardens and shrines. Beauty represents in the eyes of the Baha'is the possibility for unification of the human race and purity of the soul.
The religious duties arising from the Baha'i Faith are acts for human rights and bringing to an end all inequality based on difference of colour, race or sex, and exaggerated economic and social differences. In the explanatory booklets of the Baha'is in Israel they are required to establish education which negates prejudices and false beliefs and encourages friendship and brotherhood. They claim that they preceded the United Nation's Bill of Human Rights with their beliefs. International parties, which were established after World War II, such as The Common Market, the League of the Arab States, the Organization of American Countries, the Organization of Nations of South-Eastern Asia, the Caribbean Community, receive their open support.
Believers of the Baha'i Faith are bid to refrain from alcoholic drinks, drugs, gambling, theft, violence, adultery, homosexuality, backbiting and defamation. The Baha'is are forbidden to participate in party activities and they consider themselves unpolitical.
Murray Smith told me that he was a politician in New Zealand: "When I joined the Baha'i Faith I wasn't a member of parliament by then. If I had been a member of parliament I would have had to resign. In fact I reached the Baha'i Faith on one of the election tours I had conducted. I then met a woman who told my wife and me about the Baha'is. She gave my wife books which convinced her to join the Faith. This happened a year before I was elected for parliament. 19 years later I joined too". "And didn't you miss politics?" I asked curiously. "We are active in social matters. It is not direct political activity. From my experience I have learned that the party political system will not solve the problems of humanity", he answered. One of the principles (according to a pamphlet I was given) is to find a spiritual solution for economic problems.
REFRAINING FROM RITUALS
The Baha'is are committed to pray at least once a day. During prayer they turn towards [Baha'u'llah's] tomb in Akko. They can pray anywhere and at any convenient hour for them.
The Baha'i year is divided into 19 months consisting of 19 days each. Every beginning of a month is a kind of feast in which the members of the community meet, talk, pray and eat together. The new year begins on 21 March. The month before is a month of fasting and praying. During this period the Baha'is refrain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset, and pray special prayers in the morning and in the evening. Additional feasts are the birth days and death days of the Bab and Baha'u'llah.
The Baha'i Faith usually refrains from rituals: Prayer is personal and the wedding ceremony is very simple. The bride and bridegroom must get the parents' permission and say: "We join each other with the will of God". Besides this, every couple may celebrate according to its own wish. The wedding party is usually influenced by the place and culture of where it is taking place.
Baha'u'llah set several rules for burials. A person should, for instance, be buried at a distance of one hour from the place of death, with his head towards the "Baha'u'llah's" tomb in Akko. He also set a permanent version of prayer which is read during the funeral.
In contrast to other religions, the Baha'i Faith does not pass by heritage from parents to children. The children should express their wish to belong to it, first at the age of 15 and again at 21, then they are also granted rights to vote for the religious institutes.
The Baha'is were persecuted in Iran in the 19th century already and the persecutions continued even during the Haitolla periods. Iran government claimed in the past that they had collaborated with the Shah, and now they are accused of collaboration with Zionism and Imperialism.
Haitolla Humeini executed many Baha'is, and in order to receive the bodies for burial the families were forced to pay for the bullets with which the condemned were shot. The Baha'is consider the persecutions of the Iranian rule as genocide and a crime towards humanity.
Not only in Iran was the situation difficult. The Baha'is were also persecuted in South Africa, during the Apartheid rule. In a talk I had with Tahiri, who grew up in South Africa and now works for the Office for Statistics in the Universal Seat of Justice, she said that her father had joined the Baha'i Faith in the early 50's. She said that as a Christian in South Africa, he felt a distance from the uniform and from the white clergy people. He was convinced that the Baha'is, who ate and drank with him, meant real equality.
Meetings with the Baha'i community in South Africa involved application for licences from the police and personal risk. It was difficult to have a meeting with white and black believers. The blacks were prohibited to enter white areas and the whites were accused of subversion activity against the Apartheid. The community members persisted and the mixed meetings took place.
Tahiri is named for a woman, the daughter of a Moslem-Persian father, who, in opposition to the tradition of the time (mid 19 century) taught her the Koran. He put her behind a curtain when he was teaching Koran to men. One day when the father asked a question which the men could not answer, Tahiri could not hold back and answered a correct answer and exposed herself. The men were very angry. She acted for the education of women and many rose against her. She was finally murdered and her last words before death were: "Even after my death, women will continue to fight until equality is achieved".
In spite of continued oppression, the Baha'is continue to support all religions. When I asked Tahiri how forbearance is possible amidst religious persecution, she answered with typical calmness: "Islam is a religion in which the Baha'i Faith grew, therefore the Iranians are highly threatened by the new faith, and cannot recognize it. In many cases people use religion to explain their wrong doings, but this use does not testify to the religion itself".
I do not know where they hide the anger. Maybe the divine enlightenment neutralizes it. In the Bahji gardens I met an Iranian couple who found shelter from persecution in Sweden. They too radiated the same smiling religious tranquility. I could not feel the pain, anger or helplessness which is so natural in their situation.
GOLD AND ITALIAN MARBLE
The Baha'is are working continuously to develop their center in Haifa. The golden domed Shrine was built in 1953. It is built of Italian marble and supported by pink granite pillars. The dome is 40 meters high and coated with 14,000 golden coloured tiles imported from Holland. The Shrine was planned by a Canadian architect by the name of William Maxwell, and as in all Baha'i shrines, it has nine sides symbolizing the nine great religions.
In the Baha'i garden there resides the building of The Universal House of Justice, which is built in the style of the Greek Parthenon: 58 marble pillars excavated in Greece and xylographed in Italy, and green roof tiles imported from the USA. The building's area is 11,000 sq.m., its height about six stories and it cost 20 million dollars. It was designed by the Iranian architect Hussein Amanat; it was completed in 1984 and serves as the supreme legislative and administrative seat of the faith.
Patrick Ravines, who works in the archives and deals with preserving the many documents left by Baha'u'llah, the prophet of the Faith, is half American and half Peruvian. He has been living in Israel for eight years with his wife and three children. "It is impossible to see the documents now", he says. "We have not completed sorting the documents and there is a lot of work. In the future, when the sorting is over, the public can peruse the papers. A special hall will be allocated for this and investigators will be able to study the Baha'i origins".
The building and development momentum will continue until the end of 2000, and 250 million dollars will be invested in it, state the Baha'is' representatives in Israel. Apart from two additional new buildings, the Baha'is plan a variety of terraces, fountains and gardens. Excavations now underway will become in the future graceful pavilions surrounded by gardens. Some of the terraces under development can already be seen below the golden domed Shrine and above it. Thus a continuity of passages for pedestrians will be formed, tunnels and bridges will be built to cross the streets Yafe Nof, Hatzionut Avenue and Abbas. The planned terraces will be magnificently beautiful, the Baha'is promise. There will be fountains, symmetric gardens and circles of precisely cut grass plots.
"Where is the money from?" I ask and Murray Smith says that the money originates in donations by Baha'is all over the world. "We do not receive donations from whoever is not a Baha'i. Each person donates anonymously, according to his will and ability".
"The Baha'i community, if so, is very rich?"
"Most of the Baha'i population in the third world is poor by every criterion. Two million out of the five million believers live in India. It is impossible to say therefore that the Baha'is are rich. What is important is the measure of sacrifice to God, not the amount of money contributed. For a person living in a village in the Third World, a dollar might symbolize a greater sacrifice than 100,000 dollars by a contributor from the Western World. Giving is a spiritual experience between the believers and their creator".
Additional shrines were built in Bahpour, India, in Wilmette near Chicago, in Frankfurt, Germany, in Sidney , Australia, in Panama and in Kampalla, capital of Uganda.
From Haifa we traveled to visit Baha'u'llah's tomb in Bahji, about two kilometers north of Akko. Wonderful gardens surround the site and one can meet there Baha'i volunteers in the course of their "year if service" in Israel. They work in gardening and guarding, and all of them were very friendly and apparently eager to converse. Walking around near them were pilgrims and people who were saying their prayers, and they too were happy to answer questions and become friendly. But this friendliness is somewhat distanced, not touching, a kind that maintains the delicate, invisible boundaries.
On the way we tried to understand the difficulty to rupture the public-relation type kindness which characterizes the people we met. Everyone was so very "nice", we were offered drinks and cookies in a large, air conditioned and reception hall. The interviewed people arrived on time and agreed to any request, but we left with a feeling of sterility. If external beauty symbolizes inner quality, then just as one cannot run about unrestrained in the orderly garden pathways, similarly is the Baha'i righteous soul and compassion packed in a "buttoned" well presented outfit.
Copyright ©1995, Mesa Akher (Israel)
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