Posted to Religious Diversity News on August 1, 2008
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Earlier this summer, Unesco added the Bahai holy places here to its list of World Heritage sites. Bahai officials greeted the announcement with enthusiasm. “[It] highlights the importance of the holy places of a religion that in 150 years has gone from a small group found only in the Middle East to a worldwide community with followers in virtually every country,” said Albert Lincoln, secretary-general of the Haifa-based Bahai International Community. The Bahais, dedicated to the idea that all great religions teach the same fundamental truths about an unknowable God, now number more than five million. Mr. Lincoln added that the group is “particularly grateful to the government of Israel for putting forward this nomination.”
Impressive Bahai houses of worship stand in dozens of cities, from New Delhi, India, to the American headquarters in Wilmette, Ill. But each faces the steep slope of Mount Carmel on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, a 100-acre site that contains the Bahai archives and the Universal House of Justice, a neoclassical building that houses the faith’s elected nine-member international governing body and a staff of more than 600. At the literal and spiritual center of the site stands the shrine of Mirza Ali Muhammad, known as the Bab (“Gate”), the forerunner who in 1844 heralded this youngest monotheistic faith, and who is buried here in a golden-domed mausoleum.
Though the Bab was executed for insurrection and heresy in 1850 in Tabriz, Iran, his followers brought his remains to the Holy Land in the 1880s, and buried them here in 1909, at the instruction of the faith’s founder, Mirza Hussein Ali. The BahÃ¡’u’llÃ¡h (“Glory of God”), as the founder is known, himself arrived in the area in 1868 as a prisoner of the Ottomans after he had been banished from Persia, charged with revolutionary activities and of conspiring to assassinate the shah.
These days, the complex attracts over half a million visitors a year, including Bahai pilgrims who come for nine-day visits, and tourists who come to stroll the immaculate curving terraced gardens that set off the shrine — nine above it, and nine below. The terraces, designed by Fariburz Sahba, and completed in 2001, correspond to the 18 original Bahai disciples. They require some 80 gardeners and an annual cost of about $4 million to maintain.
Yet not all goes placidly for Bahaism. For all the benevolence its members enjoy from their Israeli hosts (following an instruction of BahÃ¡’u’llÃ¡h issued shortly after his arrival here, the religion neither seeks nor accepts converts in Israel), they suffer miserable persecution in Islamic countries. Nowhere more so than in Iran, the cradle of the faith.