The Finance Ministry is threatening to torpedo a status agreement between the Bahai World Center and the Israeli government unless the Bahai agree to hire Israelis at their centers in the Haifa region in place of current workers who are mainly Bahai volunteers from around the world, sources told Anglo File.
"We are in discussions with the Finance Ministry regarding the renewal of the agreement which takes effect on the first of May," said Albert Lincoln, the secretary-general of the Bahai International Community, but he declined to discuss the details of the talks.
The agreement, which regulates the status of the Bahai in Israel, recognizes it as an international religious organization and accords it special treatment for visiting dignitaries and volunteers. The agreement, which also gives the Bahai certain tax benefits, was originally signed with the Foreign Ministry and is reviewed every five years by a special ministerial committee, comprising of representatives from the ministries of foreign affairs, finance, tourism, religious affairs, industry and trade, and the sports, science and culture ministry. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry confirmed discussions were underway regarding the hiring of more Israelis.
The Finance Ministry has denied the treasury was attempting to place any conditions on the Bahai, but said that it is merely a question of carrying out the laws of the country relating to foreign workers. "It is a question of whether they are here legally and have work permits," said a spokesman for the ministry. "It is the same as in any other country, you can not work illegally." When contacted by Anglo File, director-general of the Finance Ministry, Ohad Marani, promised to call back to give a response, but did not do so.
The head of the non-Jewish religions directorate at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Yossi Hershler, told Anglo File that, as far as his ministry was concerned, the Bahai had received permanent recognition in 1972 and this was not subject to renewal or change. He also noted that relations between the ministry and the Bahai was one of complete cooperation.
Bahai Secretary-General Lincoln emphasized, "We do employ Israelis. There has been a significant increase in the number of Israelis employed at the center, working as security guards, guides and office workers." The number of Israelis working at the Bahai center is up from 70 in 1995 to nearly 250 at the present time. There are an additional 720 people working at the center who are volunteers of the Bahai faith.
A spokesman for Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna said they were unaware of the current negotiations between the Bahai and the treasury, but noted that, "All workers at the Bahai center are Israelis with the exception of members of the Bahai faith who volunteer for a year of service." The spokesman also said that the relationship between the city of Haifa and the Bahai have been "excellent" for many years throughout the terms of all of Haifa's mayors.
The two central Bahai sites in Israel are in Haifa and Acre. The Haifa site, with its gold dome and famed garden terraces, houses a shrine to the Bab, a founder of the Bahai faith. Also in Haifa is the Universal House of Justice, which administers the international affairs of the faith. The Bahai religion is based on the teachings of the Bahaullah, who is buried in Acre and his predecessor, the Bab, and believes that humanity is one single race which should unite to form a single global society. The Bahai view Bahaullah, a Persian who lived in the 19th century, as the most recent "messenger of God" in a long line including Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ and Mohammed.
In the last nine months alone, the Bahai center in Haifa has attracted over 800,000 visitors. It also draws thousands of Bahai pilgrims, some of whom stay for a year, while others spend a traditional 10 days and 10 nights in the area.
Lincoln is not overly concerned with the situation with the treasury. "We think things will work out since there has already been a government decision to sign the agreement, but we are still discussing the details," he said. "We have provided the government with detailed figures of the number of Israelis employed here and we have also given them our plan for the next five years, including extensive developments in the Acre area.
"We want to leave aside these discussions and get on to good projects and we are looking at doing some solid, quality developments. One of the reasons we believe the government will approve the agreement is that it is attractive and beneficial to the economy," said Lincoln, noting that the organization is continuing to invest in Israel despite the "unfortunate" situation.
"I think the authorities have every reason to be pleased," he said.