World's Baha'i connect with past in Israel

Haifa, Israel - Some pilgrims stand in silence. Others prostrate themselves and offer fragrant petals.

There is no clergy, no sermons, no pressing throngs of faithful.

The hushed Baha'i pilgrimage to the Holy Land focuses on personal prayer and meditation, and is like no other in a region long torn between religions struggling -- often noisily and sometimes violently -- for hearts, minds and land.

"It was a spiritual journey for me," said Mutale Salimu Hobbs, 30, from Zambia in southern Africa.

"It was a great experience, with people coming together as one," she said on Mount Carmel, the world headquarters of the Baha'i movement above the busy Israeli port city of Haifa.

Founded in the 19th century by a Persian nobleman, Baha'i is considered by some scholars to be an offshoot of Islam. The faith sees itself as an independent religion and its 5 million followers are spread across more than 190 countries.

Baha'is say their religion is among the fastest growing in the world, despite a ban on proselytising.

Believers are expected to share their faith with others, but would-be members are welcomed only if they are convinced through their own investigation and study that it is right for them to become a Baha'i.

"Baha'is take a middle approach and see the role of religion not to insist on blind adherence," said Douglas Moore, director of the Baha'i office of public information.

A central tenet is that people should work to build a global society which calls for an end to prejudice, full sexual equality and the eradication of extremes of poverty and wealth.

The Baha'i headquarters are located close to the centre of the intractable Middle East conflict.

Earlier this year, Haifa became a prime target for rockets fired by Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, some falling close to the lush Baha'i gardens and its holy sites.

"During the war, I felt I would rather be here than anywhere else," said Anja Nicke, a 33-year-old volunteer from Germany. "It was very comforting to pray at the holy shrines."


Believers regard the faith's founder, Baha'u'llah, as the latest in a line of prophets including Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad.

His shrine near the Israeli coastal city of Acre is considered the religion's holiest site and a focal point for pilgrims.

Baha'u'llah, Arabic for the "glory of God", and his followers were exiled to Acre after being banished from his native Persia, now Iran, for his beliefs.

Haifa's skyline is dominated by another Baha'i site -- the bronze dome above the tomb of the Bab, a Persian merchant considered by the Baha'is to be the forerunner to Baha'u'llah. Baha'u'llah was a disciple of the Bab.

The Bab, Arabic for "gate", was publicly executed in 19th-century Persia for what were considered heretical beliefs.

Despite a commanding architectural presence in Haifa, the small cluster of Baha'is keep to themselves in the mixed city of Jews and Arabs.

"They have contributed to the beauty of the city," said 63-year-old Haifa resident Daniel Kaufman. "But they are non- committal in terms of being part of life here."


Baha'is say they still face persecution and discrimination in much of the largely Muslim Middle East.

"They are developing well in the West," said Moshe Sharon, a professor with Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "But it is a question of survival for the Baha'is in the Middle East."

Baha'is estimate 300,000 followers live in Iran, where their beliefs are considered heresy by the country's religious leaders.

Baha'is and human rights groups say hundreds of their faith have been jailed and executed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The government denies it has detained or executed people for their faith.

Baha'is say they also suffer discrimination in Egypt, where there is a 2,000-strong community.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, accused by opponents of being a Baha'i, was quick to make a denial and affirm his Muslim beliefs.

While Baha'u'llah instructed followers not to establish a permanent community in the Holy Land, 700 volunteers from around the world work as custodians at its shrines.

Haifa is also home to the Baha'i "Universal House of Justice", the faith's global governing council.

"We have an outlook for the future which is brighter and we are working for the community of mankind," said volunteer Alfester Crim Jr., a Vietnam war veteran from Illinois who heads security for the Baha'is in Haifa.

Crim, 56, became a Baha'i while he was a U.S. state trooper.

"All the proofs and my logic used as a state police officer showed me it was the only correct thing to do," he said.

Because space is limited at Baha'i holy sites, a maximum of 500 people at one time are allowed to take part in pilgrimages to Haifa. They have to wait up to six years to come and are only allowed to visit again after another five-year wait.