The Bahai gardens, Haifa.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Most residents of Haifa, and for that matter Israel, know little about Baha’is except that they have beautiful gardens.
“I think they believe in flowers more than anything else,” said Faraj Najjar, who owns a restaurant not far from the Baha’i gardens on Mount Carmel. “They are very sensitive about every centimeter in how they care for their gardens.”
Indeed, it is largely because of the 19 terraces of manicured hedges, palm trees and flower beds with a golden dome in the center, that Haifa is on the map for foreign visitors to the Holy Land. The dome houses the remains of the Bab, the forerunner of the revelation of Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i faith. Sunday marked the 200th anniversary of Baha’u’llah’s birth, cause for celebration for the world’s five to six million Baha’is and, they hope, the rest of humanity.
The beauty of the gardens is not just for tourists. It is also meant to set the right spirit for pilgrims visiting the Bab’s tomb. “There is a sense of calmness and serenity, and also the diversity of the human race is reflected in the flowers,” said Sama Sabet, a Baha’i volunteer who is returning to her native Kashmir this week after being responsible for media relations in Haifa.
The monotheistic religion has come a long way since Baha’u’llah, a native of Persia, was imprisoned for his support for the Bab. In 1863, he publicly announced his mission as messenger of God. He was later exiled, spending his later years in Acre. The faith has grown into a world religion with communities in most countries and a growing number of adherents, despite being persecuted in Iran and some other Islamic countries, where its followers are viewed as apostates for violating the belief in the finality of Muhammad’s prophecies.
The Baha’i world leadership body, the nine-member International House of Justice, is also based on Mount Carmel, where it issues religious rulings that are binding on the faithful but – as an article of faith – it studiously keeps out of the tumultuous world of Israeli politics.
“We are treated well,” Sabet said. “There is no interference by the authorities at all. There is a very cordial relationship of respect and obedience to whatever the government might say.”
Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah – which means “Glory of God” – is the latest divine manifestation, following great moral educators dispatched to mankind by God that include Abraham, Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Baha’u’llah teaches the “unity of mankind, the oneness of the human family,” Sabet said. Baha’is consider the shrine in which Baha’u’llah is buried in Acre to be their holiest place and turn toward it in prayer.
“The purpose of the Baha’i religion is that we all should come together and recognize that we are all one, that we come from the same God,” Sabet said. In education, the elimination of prejudice based on race, religion, class and nationality is stressed. “Baha’is are for loving their country, but not obsessive love that leads to hatred of another country,” Sabet added.
Baha’i teaches that a world tribunal should be established to adjudicate conflicts between nations and that a common international language should be learned alongside mother tongues to help unite humanity. According to its precepts, the teachings of Baha’u’llah point the way toward establishing universal peace on earth.
While service to the communities in which they live is a matter of faith, Baha’is are supposed to stay out of partisan politics. “Baha’is vote, but they don’t talk about who they are voting for,” said Sabet. “They don’t promote a person in conversation.”
There are 750 Baha’i volunteers from 70 countries in Haifa and Acre. All of them come for limited stints and none stay permanently. Thus, there is no resident Baha’i community in Israel. “Baha’u’llah asked that there be no community in the Holy Land,” Sabet said. “We do not know why, but we honor it.” If an Israeli coworker expresses interest in the Baha’i faith, “we tell them there is no community. It is up to the individual to decide what to do.”
The volunteers on Mount Carmel expect an uptick in Baha’i visitors from abroad for the bicentennial. But the message has gone out that it can also be well celebrated in home communities.
“A lot of visitors from all over the world will be coming,” Sabet said. “But at the same time, people are encouraged to celebrate this momentous day in their own communities at the grassroots level. Every place is important. The whole world is one country. We should feel at home everywhere we are and have a sense of contribution there. It doesn’t matter in which part of the world you are, the idea is that you, along with others, are striving to make society better. So it would be nice to be around your coworkers and other members of wider society and celebrate this occasion.”
The anniversary is also seen as an opportunity for local Baha’i communities to expose more people to the faith.” It’s an important occasion for all of humanity,” Sabet said. “People are invited to test this remedy and decide for themselves.”
In the view of Atallah Copty, a retired professor of Middle East Studies at Haifa University, “The Baha’is in Haifa do not belong to Haifa society. They focus on themselves and don’t get involved in general affairs. They want the residents to view them positively and they succeed in this.”