The Little Religion That Persists: The Baha'i in Israel

Haifa, Israel - Stepping into the gardens of the Shrine of Bab is like entering a hallucination. They rise in steps all the way up the mountainside above Haifa's downtown, and at the midway point, at mid-morning, the clear light off the Mediterranean combines with the precise efforts of 150 gardeners to achieve a combination of lucid depth and dazzling color that may be what they were going for in the Johnny Depp Alice in Wonderland, though without the dark undertow. Halfway is where the glittering gold dome of the shrine stands, in an immaculate park that seems to hang suspended in the sky like an infinity pool. "It's kind of like a theme park, where they're keeping everything 'just so,' " says Jonas Mejer, 20, a student visiting from Copenhagen. "But it's a holy place. Entirely different story."

The story is of the Baha'i faith, which started in Iran in the early 1800s and ended up with its spiritual locus, by an accident of empire, here in what is today Israel. The shrine in Haifa marks the resting place of the "Bab," or "Gate," the name given to Siyyid Ali-Muhammad in his role as prophet. Born in the garden-rich city of Shiraz, in southwestern Iran, he both announced that a greater messenger was coming after him and laid down some of the precepts of the new faith, such as equality for women and renouncing violence. The Bab was executed by Iranian clerics as a heretic, and his remains were recovered by followers and moved covertly from place to place for decades.

Their final resting place was decided by the messenger he heralded, Mizra Hussein Ali, known as Baha'u'llah, or "Glory of God." Being the son of a nobleman, he was spared execution and sent into exile, which finally brought him to an Ottoman prison in Acre, across the bay from Haifa. He picked out the hillside where the Bab's remains are buried, though his own grave in Acre (which Israelis call Akko) is the one Baha'is face during prayers.

"When you explain the Baha'i faith, people say, 'Well, that's just common sense,' " says Rob Weinberg, communications director at the Baha'i World Centre, as the Haifa complex is known. It's a monotheism that embraces all the major religions, updating for the modern age the core values they share. The idea is that the Creator has enlightened mankind over the ages by sending prophets — from Abraham and Zoroaster to Jesus and Muhammad, and including Krishna and Buddha. Baha'is believe the Bab and Baha'u'llah brought the latest version. "The Baha'i belief is as long as there are human beings, there are enlightened ones among them who guide human beings to the next stage of development," Weinberg says.

The pillars of the faith include equality, universal education, social justice and closing the gap between rich and poor. Baha'is revere monogamy, marriage, family, public service and both science and religion, since both seek truth. There is no priesthood; every person is responsible for his or her own spiritual development. When the perhaps 6 million faithful organize themselves into local and national boards, it's by secret ballot without candidate lists or nominations. You write the name of who you think would be best.

Dug into the hillside behind the shrine is a visitor's center (open for group tours) that includes artifacts from the early days of the faith, including pages with the frantic scrawls of scribes trying to keep up as Baha'u'llah recited. And it doesn't appear that the faith is lowering its sights. In an office opposite Weinberg's stands a whiteboard with this message: "Our task: Reconceptualize (learn about) ... A) human identity ... B) the system of human relationships."

Still, there are problems. Mostly in Iran, which, far from celebrating the birthplace of the faith, regards Baha'is as apostates. The problem is not necessarily with the teachings themselves, but rather with the idea that the Creator sent any messenger after Muhammad, whom Muslims regard as the final word — "the seal of the Prophets." After executions and mob violence when the 1979 revolution brought Iran's mullahs to power, the 300,000 believers who remain in the Islamic Republic face discrimination and even arrest. Seven leaders of the community have been jailed since 2008 on what Human Rights Watch calls "fabricated" charges of espionage and propaganda against the state. As part of an official policy of stunting their development, Baha'i youth who want to attend university must hide their faith, or take their chances in an underground educational system, because believers are barred from higher education in Iran.

All of which could not seem farther away from the brilliance of the Shrine of the Bab's new and improved dome, refurbished with 11,790 gold-flecked tiles. Known as the "Queen of Carmel," the shrine both adorns and dominates the city as no other pilgrimage city — not that Haifa exactly teems with the faithful. Najaf and Karbala in Iraq have their Shi'ite busloads from Iran and Lourdes in France its annual Catholic half-million, but last year the 760,000 tourists outnumbered believers at the shrine by 100 to 1. You will know them by their blue pilgrim badges, which permit entry to the nearby archive building, modeled explicitly on the Parthenon.

"The Iranians like to say we're spies for Israel and Zionists and all that," says Weinberg. "But we were here 80 years before Israel. It's historical coincidence that this is in Haifa." In other ways, though, it's a good fit. With its hillside coastal setting that evokes San Francisco, and the apparent ease with which the city's Arab minority and Jewish population relate, Haifa is one of the more cosmopolitan among Israel's major cities. "The shrine affects the whole setup of Haifa," mayor Yona Yahav said in April, when the brown sack that had covered the dome for two years was pulled off and the hillside again shone gold. "It is the core and symbol of this tolerant and multicultural city."