HAIFA — For a good stretch of Highway 4, wrapping around Israel’s northwestern hook called Haifa, you can immediately spot two things: the vast expanse of bright blue ocean to your left and two tall white stone minarets peeking over the hills to your right. On the drive north, over the hump of the Mt. Karmel range, and you’ll find 19 concentric rings of luscious garden terraces tapering upwards consume the landscape. 

Baha’i World Center, Haifa.
(Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Despite the undeniable presence of these massive features in the Haifa metropolis, often neither of the religions associated with these structures is conjured in the minds of people when they think of the Holy Land. The Holy Land is often associated with “umbrella” religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but the nuanced voices of the minority diaspora are often glanced over as it falls into the “other” category of theology pie charts. 

The two towering spires of white granite belong to the Ahmadiyya community, a persecuted sect of Islam founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The expansive and meticulously manicured Baha’i Gardens are the intentionally designed work of the Baha’i faith’s international community. While one faith spoke of its war for peace within, the other actively advocated peace in the community without.

The gardens were our first stop today. “The shrine in the center is like the gemstone in the ring, and the gardens around it are the adornments,” said the volunteer guide, Douglas Baker. “The windows of the shrine are like perfect mirrors, reflecting God’s light.” 

Each element of the 150-year-long construction of the gardens was intentional. “The symmetry reflects unity, yet the varying flora on each level of the gardens represent the simultaneous diversity,” said Anouchka Venkadee, another volunteer (one of about 600 that come each year to run the gardens). The garden was the physical manifestation of a core element of the Baha’i faith—actively creating an environment of peace. A tour of the Baha’i visitor’s center confirmed this as the group showed a short video capturing the religion’s presence across 200 countries. The very international community of five million gathers regularly to promote peacekeeping policies to actively better their outward environment. “It’s kind of like this,” said Carmel Irandoust, a volunteer who previously worked with Ban Ki Moon at the United Nations, “We all live in the same street. How can we work together to make this street better?”

As the Baha’is actively advocate for peace in the outside community, the Ahmadis in Kababir talk of their war for peace within. It was a just short drive from the gardens to the Ahmadi mosque. Imam Falah M. O’deh greeted us and, learning we were journalists, wanted to be sure we understood something about Islam.  “Jihad, in the Quran, never comes in connection to physical war,” he said. “We fight to translate the meaning of Islam. This is the real jihad.”

Imam Falah M. O’deh
( Photo Courtesy for Eleonore Voisard)