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ISRAEL: Bahais celebrate New Year and new World Heritage status

March 24, 2009 |  2:45 am

Spring. Nearly all mark it in one way or another. Iranians and others influenced by Persian culture celebrate Nowruz, the New Year that coincides with the spring equinox.

Among leaders extending good wishes to the Iranian people was Israeli President Shimon Peres, whose efforts to speak Persian were broadcast on Israel Radio's  Persian service (Download rec0324-090005.mp3 )


Bahai1The first day of spring is also the New Year for the Bahai. This year is particularly special, as the Bahai World Center prepares to celebrate UNESCO's recognition of Bahai holy places
as World Heritage sites.

Recognition was not the faith's lot in its early days.

A young Persian announcing the imminent appearance of a divine messenger had angered Muslim authorities in the mid-19th century. The "Bab" ("gate" in Arabic), as he became known, was executed. 

Followers met with hardship too, notably Bahaullah, originally of Tehran nobility and wealth. While living in Baghdad — one of several exiles  — he declared himself the Promised One foretold by the Bab. His following grew and he was banished to a prison fortress in Acre, then an infamous penal colony in the far corner of the Ottoman empire. (In an earlier version of this post, Bahaullah was misspelled as Bahuallah.)

Bahai2Arriving in the Holy Land later with 70 followers and family members, Bahaullah wrote the teachings that became the foundation of the faith. He died in 1892 and was buried in the gardens of the Bahji mansion in Acre. His son and successor brought the Bab's remains for burial on Mt. Carmel.

The cascading garden terraces and the golden dome of the Shrine of the Bab have become Haifa's most recognized landmark, visited by thousands. The Bahji mansion grounds in Acre are also beautiful and the sites were inscribed by UNESCO "for their profound spiritual meaning" and testimony of the Bahai pilgrimage tradition.

The decision was announced last summer, but negotiating the busy holiday calendar of three religions isn't easy. Tensions in mixed cities, aggravated by a war and general elections, didn't make for festivities and it was decided to wait for the Bahai New Year.

The Bahai practice their religion but refrain from spreading it in the Holy Land, observing the unexplained instruction of Bahaullah. 

Bahai3Elsewhere in the region, their position is delicate. The Bahai World Center is recognized as an international religious entity under an agreement signed with Israel in 1987. The center enjoys the same protection that applies to other holy sites under Israeli law that protects "against psychological aspects of desecration too, not only the stones of the sites," notes Albert Lincoln, secretary-general of the Bahai International Community.

The Bahai believe in universality but world heritage nominations involve earthly politics. The sites are submitted by their countries of location. Some on the Israeli committee thought Israel should first submit local sites like the 4000-year-old Tel Dan (which may be recognized this year).

Bahai4Lincoln doesn't believe recognition of the sites in Israel will aggravate the position of the  Bahai community in Iran: "Israel has problems with Iran and we have problems with the treatment of the Bahai believers in Iran but I don't think this will be adding to these."

The same year Israel submitted the Bahai sites, Iran had submitted the country's Armenian Monastic Ensemble that also won Unesco's recognition. "This is the spirit of world heritage, the longing for humanity and universality," says Lincoln.

The concept of world heritage itself involves politics. Originally, recognition was granted on the basis of physical aspects, outstanding or ancient physical structure.

This had become contentious between First Third World countries, explains Lincoln, the latter arguing that the former had a clear advantage. Eventually, the concept extended to sites that "have a story and a message too." Places like Hiroshima, Auschwitz and the Island of Goree have been declared — "very meaningful sites but hardly known for outstanding architecture."

The recongition is an honor but also a tremendous commitment. Israeli planning committees must carefully consider any construction undermining the character of the site and its relations to its surroundings. World heritage sites, says UNESCO, belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

Around 700 Bahai live in Israel, most serving at the international center. Some ultra-orthodox elements may have rejected their presence but on the whole, says Ofer Amar, the center spokesman, relations with most religious Jewish elements have been positive, such as with permitting Jews to visit the Bahai sites, where there is no actual worship, or the icons and idols strictly forbidden by Judaism.

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photos, top to bottom:

Bahais from around the world walk up the central staircase of the Terraces of the Shrine of the Bab on Mt. Carmel, as part of inaugural ceremonies held in May 2001; The Shrine of the Bab and its terraces, Haifa, Israel; The Mansion at Bahji, Acre, Israel; The Shrine of Bahaullah, Bahji, Acre, Israel. All Copyright Bahai International Community, Bahai Media Bank.