HAIFA – If we started our journey through the Holy Land with a look at ethnic minority refugees in South Tel Aviv, we continued it today with a visit to two of its smallest minority religions, the Baha’i and the Ahmadi Muslims.
Our first stop: The Baha’i World Center. There are not many Bahá’ís — only about five million around the world — but, according to our Baha’i guide, Rodney Clarken, it is the second most widely distributed religion, right behind Christianity.
The Bahá’í faith is a religion of all religions. All beliefs are considered valid and the Bahá’ís see the world’s major religions as chapters in God’s teachings. There are no clergy or churches, but they do have one place that’s especially sacred — this region in the north of Israel, where the remains of two important figures in the faith, the Báb and Abdu’l Baha, lay. Here we were, standing right there, most of us in awe.
Full disclosure: I spent some time with a few Bahá’ís in New York, so I knew anecdotally what to expect in terms of the beauty of the Bahá’í World Center. Like some of the Bahá’ís back in the States, Clarken, a retired professor from the U.S., told us how honored he felt to live and work there as an archival assistant. Clarken, who has volunteered there for six years, did not initially want to do it. In fact, he said he came as a “sacrifice to God.” But now, he says that he’s never been happier.
Clarken will work at the Bahá’í World Center for one more year, then he will leave Israel. None of the Bahá’í volunteers are permanent residents of the Holy Land, nor are they allowed to be. That’s the way the founder of the faith, Bahá’u’lláh, wanted it.
That means Haifa is home to a faith with no community there, and it’s also home to another religion where its only community in Israel is in that city: Ahmadiyya. The Ahmadis — as the worshippers are called — consider themselves to be a sect of Islam, though they do not believe that Mohammed is the final prophet, as orthodox Muslims do. Seventy to 80 percent of the 2,200 Ahmadis in Kababir, a neighborhood in Haifa, are from one clan, the Oudeh family, which converted to Ahadiyya four generations ago. So was the next man we met with: Muad Oudeh, the Secretary General of the Ahmadi Muslim community of Kababir.
Oudeh’s favorite question might be “why?” (really, he should be a journalist). When we arrived at the mosque, he immediately asked us why worshippers come to places like that one to pray. We all guessed: “To talk to God?” “To be with the community?” No, he said. He offered a reason of his own: worshipping at a mosque is coming to meet God.
Oudeh, an energetic man with plenty of stories, tackled another big why: Why the division and hatred between different religious groups?
“We have a huge issue in interrupting God’s words,” said Oudeh. He said the way certain passages are understood (or misunderstood, perhaps) create division.
But when it comes to physical places, there is in fact a line of division for Oudeh. Haifa is the “Holy City,” and it does not belong to Israel, he said.
“The Jewish state is not my state,” said Oudeh, who identifies as Palestinian. “The anthem, the flag…I am not inside.”
Oudeh said he often meets with leaders of different faiths to talk about the differences they have. But he’s tired of talking. He said that once, on a visit to Jerusalem, he proposed walking down the street with a rabbi, holding hands. A Muslim and a rabbi in unity, he said. Think about the example that would set! The rabbi wasn’t ready yet, but Oudeh said that he is.
But the unlikely sight of a rabbi and imam embracing is a common occurrence in a city that is just a 30 minute drive from Haifa, the city of Acco. During our visit to Acco this afternoon, we gathered in a local theater to meet that rabbi and imam. When Imam Samir Assi entered the room, Acco’s Chief Rabbi, Yosef Yashar, rose from his seat. The two men embraced with hugs, kisses and handshakes, like two long-time friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. They truly are friends—best friends actually if you ask Yashar. They serve as an example in Acco—where Arabs make up more than 30 percent of the population—that Muslims and Jews can be neighbors peacefully.
“There is no secret recipe,” the rabbi told us in Hebrew, with Professor Yardenr serving as a translator. If everyone respects “basic humanity of our neighbors, we can live together.”
Assi, who until recently was the imam of the second-largest mosque in Israel, agreed. “I need to understand people who are different from me,” he said, also in Hebrew. “It all begins with showing respect to one another.”
While there is still tension between the communities and incidents of incitement in Acco, Yashar and Assi believe their city can be a model for coexistence.
“This type of news, no one ever reports,” Assi said.
For a room full of journalists, this was a good lesson. Later that night our group drove to the northern Israel city of Tiberias where we set up our pop-up newsroom in the Restal Hotel. Among the pictures and stories that we posted on our website, Godland, were the images and words of the rabbi and the imam of Acco.