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For centuries, the Holy Land has been recognised as sacred for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Moses and Jesus established their religions there, and Muhammad visited on His night journey and ascension.
But how did this land on the shores of the Mediterranean come to be associated with the Baha’i Faith, a religion born in Persia, more than 1500 kilometers away?
Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Faith from 1921-1957, explained that it was the result of “successive banishments of its Founder, culminating in His exile to the Turkish penal colony of Acre, and His subsequent death, and burial in its vicinity…” 1
The Founder was Baha’u’llah (“the Glory of God”, 1817-1892), Who received His spiritual revelation in Tehran in 1853 and Who shortly afterwards was exiled by the Shah to Baghdad, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
Machinations by the Persian authorities, egged on by clergy who wanted the attractive modern faith as far away as possible, led to Him being exiled to what is modern-day Turkey.
After time in Constantinople (now Istanbul), and Adrianople (now Edirne), He was further exiled with His family and some followers to the Ottoman penal colony that is now the Israeli city of Akka (in English, “Acre”).
Just before He arrived in that prison city in 1868 Baha’u’llah spent some hours across the bay in Haifa, a place where, 23 years later, He would point to a spot on the steep northern face of Mt Carmel and issue a direction that it become the last resting place of His spiritual forerunner, the Bab (1819-1850).
And it was through His “Tablet of Carmel”, which He revealed on Mt Carmel, that He established the location of His religion’s future administrative centre, slightly to the southeast of and adjoining the precincts of the Shrine of the Bab.
In 1892 Baha’u’llah passed away in a mansion on the outskirts of Akka and was buried nearby, His Shrine thereby becoming the most holy place on earth for Baha’is.
Although the spiritual and administrative centre of the Baha’i Faith was thus fixed, the political status of the land on which it was located was destined for decades of turmoil.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed, and little more than a decade later the fortunes of the war saw the Holy Land become a Mandate under the control of the British.
Throughout all these changes, the Baha’is adhered to the cardinal teaching of their faith — to seek to create unity based on the principle of the oneness of humanity. They continued to abide by its laws that members must obey the laws of the land and not participate in partisan politics.
Two years after the end of World War II, the British Mandate came to an end and the newly born United Nations appointed a special committee on Palestine to look at the future of the land.
In response to an inquiry by the committee’s chairman as to the religious interest of the Baha’is, Shoghi Effendi responded in a letter which noted some unique characteristics of the Faith’s position in the Holy Land.
It is in the soil of this land, he wrote, 2 “that the three central Figures of our religion are buried”, referring to Baha’u’llah, the Bab, and to Baha’u’llah’s son, Abdu’l-Baha.
He said the Holy land “is not only the centre of Baha’i pilgrimages from all over the world but also the permanent seat of our Administrative Order.”
Shoghi Effendi then addressed the controversial topic of the future political status of the Holy Land.
“The Baha’i Faith is entirely non-political and we neither take sides in the present tragic dispute going on over the future of the Holy Land and its peoples nor have we any statement to make or advice to give as to what the nature of the political future of this country should be,” Shoghi Effendi wrote.
“Our aim is the establishment of universal peace in this world and our desire to see justice prevail in every domain of human society, including the domain of politics.
As many of the adherents of our Faith are of Jewish and Moslem extraction we have no prejudice towards either of these groups and are most anxious to reconcile them for their mutual benefit and for the good of the country.”
Shoghi Effendi said that what did concern the Baha’is was that any future government controlling Haifa and Acre should recognise that within this area existed the spiritual and administrative centre of a world Faith.
The Baha’is, he said, wanted that future government to acknowledge and permanently safeguard the independence of the Faith, its right to manage its international affairs from that area, and the right of Baha’is from every country to visit it as pilgrims.
In her biography of Shoghi Effendi, his wife, Ruhiyyih Rabbani described what happened shortly after Shoghi Effendi sent that letter, in the prelude to the 1948 civil war that led to the establishment of Israel.
“It must be remembered that the only oriental notable of any standing whatsoever who had not fled from Palestine before the War of Independence was Shoghi Effendi. This fact was not lost upon the authorities of the new State [of Israel],” she wrote. 3
“One of [the Jewish independence movement’s] first acts when the fighting was still going on, had been to place a notice on the Shrine of Baha’u’llah – much more isolated than the Shrines in Haifa – stating that it was a Lieu Sainte or ‘Holy Place’, thus ensuring that it would be treated with respect by all Jews.”
As it did with those previously ruling the Holy Land, the Baha’i World Centre sought to establish good relations with the new government, and its status is now legally recognised.
The Baha’i World Centre, with some 700 volunteer staff from around the world, is a symbol of the unity of humanity, and provides an example of how people of diverse national and religious backgrounds can come together in harmony and work for the peace and prosperity of the world.
- The Priceless Pearl by Ruhiyyih Rabbani, Baha’i Publishing, p. 287-288.
- Ibid, p. 288-289.
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