The Bahai movement, which plowed $250 million into re-landscaping the gardens of its Haifa world headquarters, charges that it has been unfairly treated by the local media.
Articles have appeared in the local and national press accusing the Bahai World Center of receiving government tax reimbursements which it is not entitled to, of having unethical links with the Labor Party, of using excessive amounts of water to maintain the gardens and, most absurdly, of worshiping idols and using incense during religious practices.
Officials are particularly furious about an "untrue and unfair" article that appeared in the Haifa weekly newspaper Zman Haifa earlier this month, which claimed that the world center had received millions of shekels in irregular payments from the Israeli government. The Bahais are particularly distressed because they say the newspaper gave them just one hour to respond to the allegations before the article went to press.
"It upsets us that people look for an ulterior, negative motive in what we are doing," says Glen Fullmer, senior information officer at the center. He attributes the attacks to the Bahai community's dramatic shift from "obscurity" to "high-profile" target for media coverage following the opening of the new garden project.
"We were silent citizens," he says, "and sometimes the story we have to tell - that we are beautifying our holy places with voluntary contributions from Bahais around the world on a nonprofit basis - just doesn't seem to add up."
Based on an acceptance of all world religions, the Bahai faith supports the unification of humanity and the emergence of a global civilization. Its principles forbid accepting donations from any individual or institution outside of the faith.
The opening of the gardens surrounding the world-famous golden-domed Shrine of the Bab - a tranquil haven for visiting pilgrims - is the result of 15 years of planning and construction, and a $250-million investment by the Bahai community. The center signed an agreement with the Israeli government in 1987, entitling it to tax exemptions on the basis of the fact that it is an international religious, nonprofit organization. The center stands to receive a tax refund on the order of $20 million.
The Zman Haifa article was based on questions about tax reimbursement that were submitted by an independent auditor to the Ministry of Tourism.
Bahai sources claim that all the auditor's queries were satisfactorily answered, and that it was "defamatory" and unfair of the newspaper to portray the questions as based in fact. Furthermore, the world center placed a full-page advertisement in the newspaper a week later, refuting the paper's claims with quotes from Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Finance officials. The Bahai center is still considering taking legal action against the newspaper for the "malicious and unprofessional" article.
Zman Haifa editor Sharon Gal told Anglo File that reporters had given the Bahais about seven hours to repond to the claims. Due to a "technical error," their response to the allegations had not appeared, but added that a response was printed in full the following week, the same week the full-page advertisement was published. He added that many editors would not have agreed to print the advertisement of the Bahais because it was so overtly critical of the newspaper.
Murray Smith, deputy secretary-general of the Bahai World Center, says the gardens have given a "big boost" to the social and economic life of Haifa, with almost 35,000 Israelis visiting the site every week since June. This represents a radical rise in the number of day visitors to the city, at a time when tourism is at an all-time low. He emphasized that entrance to the gardens is free and that they are open daily.
The opening of the gardens, Smith adds, has forced the Bahais into the "limelight," although they prefer to keep a low profile, to avoid "upsetting people in a way that will be of negative consequence to Bahais in other countries."
Smith dismisses as "completely false and erroneous" the claims in the media that the Bahais worship idols and use incense. He also outlined the world center's strict regulations - built into the planning of the gardens - stipulating avoidance of water-intensive plants, and use of state-of-the-art irrigation technology. He adds that many "positive" articles also appeared in the press following the opening of the gardens.
In general, says Smith, the Bahai center has enjoyed good relations with all Israeli governments, a fact that has not escaped the attention of the government of Iran. There, Bahai believers are persecuted under the fundamentalist Islamic regime, which accuses them of being Zionist collaborators. Baha'u'llah, the founder of the monotheistic Bahai faith - which broke off from Islam 150 years ago - arrived in the Holy Land from Iran as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire in 1868 and died near Acre in 1892. According to Smith, when the Bahais arrived in Palestine, Baha'u'llah instructed his followers that they must not seek or accept converts here, a rule which is still strictly observed today.
The elected governing body of the world's Bahai community, the Universal House of Justice, has its seat in Haifa on Mount Carmel, adjacent to the Shrine of the Bab and the new gardens. Haifa and Acre together comprise the international spiritual and administrative center for the five million followers of the Bahai faith, of whom 800 live in Israel, volunteering for a time at the Haifa headquarters before returning home.
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