Bahai News - 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
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 2001, Ha'aretz (Israel)
Page last updated/revised 090301
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