HAIFA, Israel (AFP) — Dominating a holy mountain in Israel is the nerve centre of the world's fastest growing major religion, preaching global unity and world peace from one of the most troubled countries on earth.
Founded less than 170 years ago, the Bahai faith believes that Persian-born prophet Bahuallah, who died in Israel, brought a message of unity, equality and world federation to save mankind from the plagues of the modern world.
The shrine to the Bab, a messenger whose mission prepared humanity for the coming of Bahuallah, the beautiful Bahai terraced gardens and classical-style World Centre in Israel's port city of Haifa are lauded by some as the eighth wonder of the world.
Believers wait years to come on pilgrimage and 600 Bahais from more than 60 countries volunteer for unpaid service to administer the centre.
"My parents worried because of the news on TV about bombs, but for me I was going to the holiest spot on the planet," said 24-year-old IT worker Bhojraj Parmar from India, a technician at the Bahai headquarters.
Not even a two-and-a-half-hour interrogation by anxious Israeli security officials upon arrival put him off.
"I don't really mind," he said. "I'm supposed to be cooperative with the government. It's for security."
Numbering five million believers in every continent reading literature translated into more than 800 languages, the Bahai faith is growing faster than any other religion but Zoroastrianism with its some 200,000 adherents.
Theirs is a vision of the world governed by a world legislature, world court and a world executive, all overseeing freedom of movement, disarmament and an international military to ensure peace.
"The central theme of Babaullah's social teachings is that humanity is one single race and the day has come for its unification into one global society," says a glossy English-language brochure.
Far from creating a "monstrous big brother," Bahais believe their faith is the most suited world religion to sustain modern, progressive society.
They believe in promoting sexual equality, universal education and religious tolerance, and eliminating prejudice, extreme wealth and poverty, -- teachings that they say hold the answers to global warming, erosion of family life and racism.
An army of 80 paid gardeners keeps the 21 terraces on Mount Carmel next to the Mediterranean in tip-top condition. The gardens took 10 years to create, and along with two other buildings finished in 2000, cost 250 million dollars (170 million euros).
--Bahais admit 'irony' of preaching global unity in Israel --
Although they receive only modest stipends to cover food and basic expenses, Bahai volunteers describe their mission as "life-changing" or "priceless."
Kenneth Chadwick, 24, from Michigan, grew up in a Bahai household but his epiphany came as a student when he found himself briefly paralysed on the dorm-room floor after fervent prayer.
One week after graduation he came to Haifa as a volunteer.
"For the first time, I understood what faith was, what love was. I felt what it was like to have a connection with God. It was a religious experience that completely changed my life. I felt like I was born again."
Dressed smartly in a shirt and tie for his clerical work at the Universal House of Justice -- the nine-member, all-male world governing body, Chadwick is a serious young man whose hands tremble as he tries to explain his mission.
Given that Israel has among the most insecure yet heavily-armed borders in the world in a region with no imminent prospect of disarmament, he acknowledges a "certain irony" over the location of the Bahai headquarters.
Parmar even sees Israel as a model for the Bahai world commonwealth.
"I love Israeli people for the fact that they are very united. Israel wouldn't be a possibility if the Jewish people weren't united. We're grateful to Israelis. We wouldn't be here without them," he said.
But the country, created 60 years ago as a Jewish state, is deeply opposed to any form of missionary activity. Anyone wishing to convert has to go abroad. Bahai spokesman Douglas Moore is "not aware" of any Israeli Bahais.
"It's enough for me that I'm Jewish. It's enough of a burden. Don't give me another," laughed Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, when asked if he thought about signing up after waxing lyrical about the Bahais' contribution to his city.
"I'm Jewish, I believe in my God. I don't care what they do," said Zehorit Barashar, a 22-year-old security guard who kicks out those who break the rules and wears a gun "to save these guys" because Bahais do not carry weapons.
The Bahai-Israel relationship is mutually beneficial. Bahais promise not to convert Israelis but provide a tourist magnet keeping the local economy afloat.
Unlike Christian, Muslim and Jewish organisations, Bahais keep totally aloof from politics. And none of their institutions carry out aid work in Israel or the Palestinian territories.
Israel grants them freedom to run their World Centre.
"We are very proud that the holiest place for the Bahais is situated in Haifa. The way they have done the whole area, the mountain, is outstanding. It is considered the eighth wonder of the world," said Yahav.
The Bahai gardens are the main tourist attraction in Haifa, he said.
Dignitaries and foreign ambassadors are invited to learn about the faith and asked for help to curb persecution in Iran, where more than 200 Bahais have been executed or killed since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Bahais believe in progressive revelation, that the world's great religions trace one divine plan from Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed, to Bab and Babuallah in 19th-century Persia.
The year 2007 is the Bahai year 167. Years are divided into 19 months of 19 days, with extra days before new year's day on March 21 devoted to gift-giving. There are nine holy days and a one-month sunrise to sunset fast.
Not all are smitten.
"It's a bit too artificial," said Swiss tourist Egiolio Spada, pointing at the grass. "For instance, if you look at the green it seems plastic."
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