Bahai News - Divine landscape Thursday, May 31 2001 14:30 9 Sivan 5761

Divine landscape

By Leora Eren Frucht

(May 31) - As the Baha'is inaugurate their magnificent $250 million gardens project in Haifa, Leora Eren Frucht asks who they are, what is their link to this land, and why have many Jews outside of Israel been drawn to their universalistic faith

With suicide bombs and air-force reprisals dominating the news, it seems an odd time for thousands of people from around the world to congregate in Israel to affirm their faith in the brotherhood of man.

But last week, as Israelis and Palestinians braced for a long and bloody conflict, some 3,500 members of the Baha'i faith descended on Haifa, the world headquarters of the movement, to celebrate the completion of what they hope will be a small piece of Eden on earth.

"Concrete evidence of the ability of the human spirit to overcome hatred and cruelty," is how one Baha'i representative described the movement's multi-million dollar garden project, inaugurated on Tuesday in Haifa.

Looking at the 19 terraced gardens that stretch a kilometer from the top of Mount Carmel to the base in downtown Haifa, gazing at the sparkling golden-domed Baha'i shrine in the center, hearing the hypnotic flow of water running down the channels alongside the stairs, this place does seem to offer a taste of Eden. It's certainly a world apart from the violence and carnage taking place a short distance away.

The $250 million project, which took 10 years to complete, was funded entirely by the contributions of Baha'i members. The donors include everyone from "the poorest farmer in the Congo forest to a wealthy banker in Ottawa," says William Ogeuna, the manager of a pizza restaurant in Uganda, and one of the 3,500 Baha'is who attended Tuesday's inauguration. The architect, Fariborz Sahba, an Iranian-born Canadian Baha'i, also designed the famous "Lotus Temple" in New Delhi, which now attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal.

When it opens to the public on June 4, Israelis will be able to enjoy - for free - what is being dubbed as "the eighth wonder of the world."

"We want this to be a gift" says Glenn Fullmer of the Baha'i movement's public information office in Haifa.

Who are these people? Why would they want to give such a gift to Haifa?

And how can they still believe in the possibility of universal brotherhood when drive-by shootings, shellings and bombings are almost daily occurrences?

THE NEWEST monotheistic religion, the Baha'i faith originated in Iran in 1844, and today boasts some five million followers in 200 countries. It was born out of Shi'ite Islam, "but is as far away from Islam as you can imagine," says Prof. Moshe Sharon, chair of Baha'i studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

It is a universalistic faith that regards the earth as one country, and mankind its citizens. It strives for equality between the sexes, universal compulsory education, the elimination of the gap between rich and poor, the pursuit of reason and scientific knowledge and the abolition of racial and other forms of prejudice.

The principles sound lofty enough, but what about practice?

Sharon, who has studied the religion for years - has nothing but praise for the way Baha'is conduct their affairs. He notes, for instance, that the budget for the gardens project - $250 million - was set 15 years ago, and hasn't been modified at all.

"Money is handled with such care and responsibility that not one penny is spent without proper accounting."

What's more, the entire movement is run democratically, he notes. There are no religious leaders, just elected administrative councils that function at a local, national and international level. (The international body - the nine-member House of Justice - sits at the Baha'i headquarters in Haifa and members are elected for a five-year term). The Baha'i principles prohibit any involvement in political activity; they are even discouraged from campaigning for positions in the movement.

"The result is that you'll find people who are informed that they have been elected to the highest body in the movement and they didn't have a clue that they were even in the running," notes Sharon.

They are also prohibited from using firearms, drinking alcohol or taking drugs; smoking is discouraged. Children may be raised as Baha'is, but they are not considered to be members of the faith unless, once they are older, they choose to be.

"It's really hard to find anything to criticize about this faith," says the Hebrew University professor, who began studying the Baha'is because it offered an opportunity to observe the development of a relatively new worldwide religion.

The founder of the faith, a Persian merchant named Siyyid Ali-Muhummad, is known to Baha'is as the "Bab" (Arabic for "gate"). His announcement, in 1844, that he was a messenger of God sparked a near revolution in Persia, which was at the time gripped by messianic fervor. Within a few years, 20,000 of his followers were massacred by the army of the shah, who regarded the movement as a direct challenge to Islam.

The Bab, a descendant of Muhammad, was himself executed in 1850 under circumstances that only added to the mystique surrounding him. Taken from his cell before he had finished giving instructions to his secretary, he warned his guards that "no earthly power" could silence him until he had finished what he had to say. He was placed in front of a firing squad of 750 Armenian soldiers who proceeded to fire.

When the smoke cleared, the Bab had vanished. Moments later, he was found back in his cell, completing his instructions to his secretary. When he finished, he told the guards that he was now ready to be executed. The members of the original firing squad, convinced that they had witnessed divine intervention, were too frightened to repeat the task and a new squad was summoned. This time the bullets hit their target.

While the story sounds like colorful legend, Sharon says that it is in fact documented by the many European ambassadors who witnessed the botched execution. He explains: "The Bab was suspended by a rope, and the first bullets apparently penetrated the rope, releasing him [to a lower level] out of the range of the executioners. It was the kind of thing that had a one in a billion chance of happening at any given execution. The Bab just walked away - he could have fled - and went back to his cell."

His remains were hidden by his followers for many years and eventually brought to Mount Carmel for burial in a simple stone mausoleum. In 1953, the tomb was incorporated into the golden-domed Shrine of the Bab, which has since become a landmark of Haifa, seen miles away at sea.

The Bab's main purpose, according to the Baha'i, was to presage the coming of an even greater messenger of God: a Persian nobleman called Mirza Husayn-Ali, or the Baha'u'llah - Arabic for "the Glory of God." The Baha'u'llah gathered the scattered followers of the Bab and began a new community in Baghdad. At the urging of the shah, he was exiled by the Ottoman Turks who ruled the region, first to Turkey, and then even further away, to Acre, thought to be the worst penal colony of the time.

The Baha'u'llah apparently won over his captors and was eventually allowed to live in a home near Acre, which is today considered to be the Baha'i's holiest shrine. (When Baha'i pray they turn towards Acre.) During his time in the Holy Land, the Baha'u'llah visited Haifa several times and, on one visit, declared that the remains of the Bab should be buried at Mount Carmel. On another visit, he had an encounter that brings to mind Moses's experience at Mount Sinai.

"He emerged with the Table of Carmel, a poetic scripture, that takes the form of a dialogue between God and Mount Carmel, and forms the basis for the establishment of the Baha'i world center there," explains Fullmer. (That dialogue was also the inspiration for the composition written by Norwegian composer Lasse Thoreson and Tajik composer Tolib Shabidi especially for Tuesday's inaugural concert at the gardens.)

While the incarceration of the Baha'u'llah in Acre was "an accident of history," Fullmer says, "it was almost as though his enemies unknowingly conspired to fulfill prophecy by bringing him to the Holy Land and the outskirts of Mount Carmel." The garden project at Mount Carmel is regarded by the Baha'i as the fulfillment of Baha'u'llah's vision: the once barren, neglected slopes - where the prophet Elijah once stood - have been revived into a fertile, forested mountain whose terraces embrace the Shrine of the Bab like a setting around a jewel.

ACCORDING TO the Baha'i faith, the founders of the world's major religions - Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad - are all divine teachers sent by one God to educate humanity through teachings and laws suited to its stage of development. The Baha'i faith adds two more teachers to that list: the Bab and Baha'u'llah - the latter is regarded as the ultimate teacher whose revelations should enable mankind to achieve its full potential.

Today the Baha'i religion has grown from an obscure sect in Persia to the second most geographically widespread religion in the world, after Christianity.

The largest concentration of Baha'i followers - some three million - are found in India. The religion is spreading fastest in Africa. The United States has about 100,000 Baha'is.

"On the one hand, its emphasis on the equality of all people and the elimination of racial prejudice, makes it appealing to members of the lowest castes in India and to blacks in Africa. Yet, it's also a highly sophisticated philosophical religion that draws intellectuals with pacifist tendencies," says Sharon.

Kari Skatun, a Norwegian consultant in her forties, was attracted to the faith some 20 years ago when she was "seeking more spirituality and learning meditation from India.

"I liked the religion because it provided an answer to my own personal spiritual needs, but also offered solutions to the world's problems," says Skatun, referring the religion's emphasis on international social action. The turmoil in the Middle East hasn't fazed Skatun's belief in world peace and brotherhood.

"Humanity goes through stages the same way individuals do," says Skatun, who has been living in Haifa for the last two years. "Right now we are at the stage of adolescence: self-absorbed, competitive, thinking only of ourselves. But ultimately, as we approach adulthood, we will begin to consider the well-being of all the members of the family of man."

Paul Ancheta, a 35-year-old interior designer from the Philippines, converted when he was 15, after his father exposed him to the religion. His 10 brothers and sisters also became Baha'i, one by one. He says he was struck by the scriptures of the Baha'u'llah which were "so intelligent" and couldn't help but contrast them with the banality of the television evangelists who were becoming increasingly popular in his home at the time.

"I couldn't understand why my aunt was fainting in front of the television and I felt uncomfortable that I, too, was expected to faint," recalls Ancheta, noting that in the Baha'i faith prayer is personal.

Leissan Khakimova, a 20-year-old university student from Khazan in the former Soviet Union, left Islam to become a Baha'i at 15. She notes that her grandmother, a practicing Muslim, speaks positively about the movement to her friends.

"She sees the results," explains Khakimova. "In Russia, many young people hang out on the streets drinking alcohol instead of going to school. But the Baha'i youth do things to help humanity," says Kahkimova, who is one of about 200 Baha'is in her city and one of about 3,500 in the FSU.

While the Baha'i shun politics, they are strong advocates of social action and are involved in many United Nations social and educational development projects worldwide. That involvement often gives them influence beyond their numbers.

In the Philippines, for instance, the movement has 120,000 followers - out of a population of 72 million. The government has asked the movement to introduce Baha'i writings into the country's schools through a course in values education. In Bosnia, the Baha'is are running a peace-education program.

In Iran, the 350,000 Baha'is are the country's largest religious minority.

Since the Islamic Revolution they have once again been subjected to relentless persecution. "In the early days of the revolution, the nine members of the national spiritual assembly were kidnapped and disappeared. They are presumed dead. Another nine were elected, and were subsequently executed," Fullmer says.

"When the next nine were elected, a law was passed banning them."

Since it is a Baha'i principle to obey the government, the movement complied with that law, and disbanded the assembly. However, Baha'i followers continued to teach the religion and culture to their children. That led, in 1983, to the hanging of 15 teenage girls accused of holding Sunday-school classes.

Faced with international condemnation over the executions, the Iranian authorities adopted more subtle forms of repression, banning Baha'is from studying and teaching at university. In response, the members created universities in their homes, equipping them with computers and laboratories, and offering degrees in subjects ranging from pharmacology to engineering.

In 1998, the Iranian authorities raided these home universities and confiscated the equipment.

Like the Jews in Iran, Baha'is are frequently charged with being agents or spies for Israel. In the last two decades, tens of thousands of Iranian Baha'is - some of them fifth-generation members - have left the country and settled in other parts of the world.

The Baha'i communities in other Muslim countries - with the exception of Turkey - face differing degrees of persecution. In most Arab countries, they are obliged to inform the authorities if they want to congregate even for a picnic. Fullmer is reluctant to reveal more details about these communities. "Our experience is that every time we do that, there are repercussions for the community in question," he says.

IN ISRAEL, there is no local Baha'i community. The Baha'is who work at the international center in Haifa are all sent over from other countries for limited periods of time. The absence of a local Baha'i community is the result of the Baha'u'llah's written order not to engage in any proselytizing in the Holy Land. The Baha'i have studiously adhered to that edict.

"When Israelis approach us, we direct them to our Web site where they are able to satisfy their curiosity," explains Fullmer. "If they want to do more than that, we explain to them that there is no formal community here."

Albert (Avraham) Ben-Joya, a retired bank employee from Haifa, once offered to volunteer at the Baha'i Center. "I do a lot of volunteer work for different organizations and I wanted to offer my services here, too, because these people seemed so decent. But they turned down my request," he recalls. "They said that only Baha'is who come from abroad can volunteer at the center."

The Baha'u'llah never gave a reason for the ban on missionary work in the Holy Land - missionizing is legal in Israel as long as it does not involve the giving of cash or goods to entice converts. But experts in and outside the religion suspect that it was done in order to enable the movement to establish a foothold in Haifa without provoking friction and opposition.

While there is no Israeli Baha'i community, there are many Jews who have joined the religion - in particular in its birthplace, Iran.

In fact, by 1940, about one out of every 10 Jews in Iran had converted to the Baha'i faith, according to Dr. Amnon Netzer, the head of the Hebrew University's department of India, Iran and Armenia studies.

"Even today, nearly every Iranian Jewish family in the world, including my own, has some Baha'i relatives," says the Iranian-born academic.

Netzer attributes the popularity of the movement to two factors: first, a substantial number of Jews in 19th-century Persia gravitated to other religions including Islam and Christianity.

"Jews were badly persecuted in every respect," explains Netzer, noting that the Shi'ite Muslim Iranians have a special word to refer to Jews: it is "najes" - which is Persian for "ritually impure."

The Baha'i movement was particularly seductive because, unlike Christianity and Islam, the Jews who joined it did not have to renounce their Jewish faith.

"It was regarded as a social and cultural movement more than a religion," says Netzer. "And at first those who joined it continued to mark Pessah, Shabbat, Yom Kippur and all the other Jewish holidays. Subsequent generations became more cut off from Judaism," he notes. "But Jews did not regard Baha'i converts with the same contempt that they regarded a Jew who converted to Christianity or Islam, which would usually lead to a complete severance of ties. Even today, most Iranian Jews - including myself - treat their Baha'i relatives as Jews."

But what if they don't observe any Jewish rituals or holidays?

"You could say the same about many secular Jews," replies Netzer. "To be Baha'i does not mean you turn your back totally on your last religion. And besides, these people are not fanatic; they never try to coerce others to convert." Netzer notes that the universal nature of the religion was particularly attractive to Iranian Jewish intellectuals, who saw in it something not that different from the writings of the prophets.

JEWISH INTELLECTUALS in many parts of the world are drawn to the universal message of the Baha'i faith. Kate Shanks, an American university professor, who grew up Jewish, became a Baha'i in her thirties. An articulate woman who looks much younger than her 60-something years, Shanks was clearly disappointed with her own Jewish upbringing, but is, in keeping with Baha'i principles, reluctant to criticize it in public.

"I don't want to hurt anyone," she says, but when prodded, finally tells her story.

Shanks grew up in a non-religious Jewish home in the Midwest. "I knew I was Jewish and that all my friends were Jewish, and that my family had always been Jewish, but to be frank with you, I didn't know what faith was."

Eventually Shanks married a Christian. "When my first child was born, I wanted her to have equal respect for the religions of both of her grandparents and not judge them," she says. The Baha'i religion, first discovered by her husband, answered that need since it holds both Judaism and Christianity in esteem. "There was nothing in the teachings of the Baha'i that I would ever regret my children learning," she says. "There was tolerance, equality of men and women, justice."

"Leaving the Jewish faith was very difficult; there was a psychological separation that was hard," she recalls. But Shanks never denies her Jewish background. "I call myself ethnically Jewish, but my religion is Baha'i." To convert, Shanks was required to say, more or less: "I believe Baha'u'llah is who he says he is, a manifestation of God, and that I agree to abide by his laws." She also signed a card to that effect.

She smiles and says that her relatives probably still regard her conversion - almost 30 years ago - as a "delayed adolescent Sixties rebellion that I would eventually get over." Her mother "never came to terms with it," though the two continued to maintain their relationship.

Shanks says that, ironically, her respect for Judaism is greater now than it ever was before. She sent her children, raised as Baha'i, to Jewish community-center summer camps in San Diego, where she lives, and adds that she is proud that they, too, respect Judaism. "When they attend the bar mitzva of friends, they read everything and take it very seriously."

As a Jew, Shanks never visited Israel. But as a Baha'i, she applied and was accepted to work in the research department at the movement's headquarters in Haifa. The inauguration of the gardens - to which she, like all other Baha'is contributed - is especially meaningful. "In a sense I feel like I'm contributing to my Jewish heritage. The people of this country will benefit tremendously by having something so beautiful to look at and by having such a peaceful place in which to contemplate."

Like most Baha'is stationed in Haifa, Shanks keeps a certain distance from Israelis. She, like other Baha'is, says she is simply too busy to socialize.

"I am a Baha'i servant of God." But Fullmer admits that there is a directive to avoid "excessive socializing" with Israelis. "It is a closed community," he says, "and that is partly to avoid the impression of missionary activity."

The result of that low profile is that many Israelis don't know who the Baha'is are. "The Baha'is? They believe in beautiful things like gardens. It's very nice, but it's not a religion," says George Attiya, a Christian Arab who lives in a house at the base of the gardens.

"A lot of people wonder whether we are a religion or a gardening society," acknowledges Fullmer.

While Israelis may know very little about the Baha'is, the Baha'is know a thing or two about Israelis. And as utopian as their principles sound, they have a firm grip on reality. "We've heard that when Israelis see a strip of grass on a median along the highway, they set up a barbecue there," says Fullmer.

To avoid turning the Baha'i gardens into a site for family barbecues, most of the terraces will by accessible only through (free) guided tours [booked through the Haifa Tourism Board] and limited to 50 people at a time.

"We want the people coming through the gardens to have an experience that is contemplative and meditative - and to teach them something about why the gardens are here. We want it to be a controlled experience," explains Fullmer, noting that with the completion of the gardens, the number of tourists to Haifa is expected to triple to 1.2 million a year.

Israelis have long enjoyed the Baha'i presence in Israel without really understanding it. "Newlyweds take wedding photographs here. Schoolchildren take field trips here. Everyone is aware that we're here," says Fullmer, "but there is very little knowledge of who we are."

With the inauguration of the terraced garden project, that anonymity is about to come to an end.


©Copyright 2001, The Jerusalem Post

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