HAIFA, Israel (AP) -- Fulfilling a vision of the Bahai prophet Bahaullah, workers pruned and clipped grass and shrubs down a hillside in front of a gold-domed shrine -- a symbol of peace and tranquility in a land where both are scarce.
Inside the silent, dim room of the serene shrine, a few Bahai faithful meditated cross-legged, heads bowed, eyes closed and hands clasped above the tomb of one of their prophets.
The completion of 18 gardens of eucalyptus and gnarled olive trees, flowers and ivy marks the realization of a century-old vision of the prophet Bahaullah. Followers of the Bahai faith believe he was sent to lead humanity into an age of universal peace.
In a place where more than 450 people have been killed in months of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, that hope can seem far away.
ADVANCE FOR FRIDAY AMS, APRIL 20--This is a a partial view of one of the 18 terraced gardens of eucalyptus, gnarled olive trees, flowers and ivy below the gold-domed Bahai shrine on a hillside in the northern coastal Israeli town of Haifa, April 4, 2001. Followers of the Bahai faith will celebrate completion of the gardens in May.
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
Iran Hessami, 50, a pilgrim from Vancouver, Canada, prayed inside the shrine, perched on the slopes of Mount Carmel overlooking this Mediterranean port city.
''I prayed for peace of the world,'' she said, following a line of pilgrims smiling at two Arab couples taking wedding photographs in the gardens. ''I am praying not only for the Bahai people, but all the people of the world. Bahai believe in unity and diversity.''
Hessami was born in Iran, but left after the Islamic revolution in 1979, prompted by rules that prevented her children her children from going to school because their mother was Bahai.
About 130 years earlier, one of the religion's founders, the Bab -- who foretold the coming of the prophet Bahaullah -- was shot to death in Iran along with 20,000 followers. Islamic clergy apparently felt threatened by the growing popularity of the religion.
ADVANCE FOR FRIDAY AMS, April 20--Israeli flags fly in the foreground over a hillside with part of the 18 terraced gardens of eucalyptus, gnarled olive trees, flowers and ivy and the gold-domed Bahai shrine in the northern coastal Israeli town of Haifa, April 4, 2001. The faithful will celebrate completion of the gardens in May, the culmination of a century-old vision of the prophet Bahaullah. Followers of the Bahai religion believe he was sent to lead humanity into an age of universal peace.
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
A few years later, Bahaullah was exiled from Iran to Acre, near Haifa, in what was then Ottoman-ruled Palestine. There he was kept under house arrest until his death in 1892.
While under arrest, Bahaullah and the Bab wrote poems, ethical and social teachings and mystical writings, which form the basis of the religion.
The world's 5 million Bahai are scattered throughout the globe, with an estimated 130,000 living in the United States. They teach the importance of abandoning all prejudice and recognize equality of the sexes and the essential unity and common themes of all religions.
''The Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens,'' said Bahaullah, who is considered by Bahais to be the last of a line of prophets that included Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed.
Bahais are still considered heretics in Iran and are not recognized in the Iranian constitution as a religious minority. Islamic authorities there executed some 200 Bahais in the 1980s, and thousands have since reportedly fled the country to escape persecution.
Before he died in Acre, Bahaullah pointed across a bay to Mount Carmel in Haifa and said that the Bab's remains should be buried there and a shrine built.
The structure was first built on the site in 1909, and improvements and additions have been made ever since. Anne Wong, a spokeswoman for the center, said that the terraced gardens, which took 10 years and cost $250 million to develop, complete the project and fulfill Bahaullah's wish.
Recently, journalists were invited to preview the gardens, whose completion will be formally celebrated on May 22 in a ceremony to be attended by 3,000 believers from around the world.
''The real message of these terraces is one about the victory of love over violence,'' said Albert Lincoln, secretary-general of the Bahai International Community. ''When the Bab was martyred in Iran in 1850, his body was thrown out on the side of a moat outside the city to deny him a decent burial. The Bahais of the world answered that hatred with love.''
Lincoln said he hopes visitors, in particular Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, will feel that love and perhaps explore the message of the Bahais, who say believers in all religions are equal under one God.
Their terraces illuminated by 2,000 lamps, the gardens symbolize the Bahai faith, said Fariborz Sahba, the Iranian-born architect who designed the gardens.
''The meaning of the design is in those memories of those dark nights of the Bab in prison. So we flood this mountain with lights,'' Sahba said.
The wind from the sea blew up the hillside as pilgrims climbed the steps through the center of the garden, which smells of flowers and herbs.
''The visitor feels they are walking through a spiritual garden, not a beautiful garden,'' Sahba said. ''You can buy the beauty. You cannot buy the spirit.''
End Adv for Friday, April 20
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