World Heritage

Baha'i holy places in Israel added to UN World Heritage list

The Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh and the Shrine of the Báb join the Vatican, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Pyramids, among other places, as sites of "outstanding universal value."

ACRE, Israel — The holiest place on earth for Bahá'ís is an 19th century mansion and surrounding grounds outside this historic city in northern Israel. Known as Bahji, it is the final resting place of Bahá'u'lláh and the main pilgrimage site for the more than five million Bahá'ís worldwide.

Now that site and another Bahá'í holy place in nearby Haifa have been added to the United Nations' World Heritage list, recognized for their "outstanding universal value" as part of humanity's cultural heritage.

The decision by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, meeting in Quebec City, Canada, on 8 July 2008, means that the Shrines of Bahá'u'lláh and the Báb join a list of internationally recognized sites like the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and Stonehenge.

The World Heritage list also includes places of global religious significance like the Vatican, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the remains of the recently destroyed Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.

The Bahá'í shrines are the first sites connected with a religious tradition born in modern times to be added to the list, which is maintained by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"The decision to include the Bahá'í Faith's two most holy sites on the World Heritage list is noteworthy because it adds yet another layer of international recognition to the Bahá'í Faith as an historic and cultural phenomenon of global importance," said Albert Lincoln, secretary general of the Bahá'í International Community.

"In so doing, it highlights an historic process that has unfolded in the last two hundred years, wherein a small persecuted group originally found only in the Middle East has spread and taken root around the globe, to the extent that its present membership includes people from virtually every nationality, ethnic group, and religious background.

"For the more than five million Bahá'ís around the world, the World Heritage Committee's recognition of their most cherished holy places is a cause for rejoicing, and a unique testimony to the triumph of love and unity over violence, hatred and persecution," said Mr. Lincoln.

The Bahá'í holy places were inscribed on the basis of two among six possible criteria that determine whether a man-made site has "outstanding universal value," which is the defining characteristic that all World Heritage sites share. Satisfying any of the six qualifies a site for inscription.

In the case of the Bahá'í holy places, the two criteria met were that the sites "bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization" and that they are "to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance."

In its decision on 8 July, the 21-member World Heritage Committee stated that the Bahá'í sites met the first criterion because, "as the most holy places of the Bahá'í Faith, and visited by thousands of pilgrims each year from around the world, [they] provide an exceptional testimony to, and are powerful communicators of, the strong cultural tradition of Bahá'í pilgrimage."

The second criterion was satisfied by the fact that the "two holy Bahá'í shrines are tangible places of great meaning for one of the world's religions," said the committee.

The properties demonstrate "integrity linked to the history and spiritual home of the Bahá'í Faith" and demonstrate "authenticity as tangible expression of the body of doctrine and system of values and beliefs that form the Bahá'í Faith," the committee concluded, adopting the recommendation of an expert advisory body, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

The World Heritage list was established by the World Heritage Convention, which defines the general criteria for inscription on the list, and includes provisions for recognizing notable natural sites, such as East Africa's Serengeti and Australia's Great Barrier Reef, which are both on the list. Its purpose is to identify, protect, and preserve places of "cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value." The Convention was signed in 1972 and has been ratified by 184 nations since then.

At its annual meeting in July, the Committee listed 27 new sites, including the Bahá'í holy places, bringing to 878 the number of man-made and natural sites on the list.

Experts who followed the nomination process said it was the strong tradition of Bahá'í pilgrimage that convinced the Committee the sites were worthy of inscription.

"The fact that thousands of people keep coming to the place — and not only Bahá'ís but others — this is important," said Giora Solar, an Israeli architect who until September served on the executive committee of ICOMOS. "And it is not something anecdotal to history. It started in the 19th century and it continues and is growing."

The two shrines, one near the recognized heritage site of Old Acre on Israel's northern coast and the other on Mount Carmel in Haifa, are the resting places of Bahá'u'lláh and the Báb, the founders of the Bahá'í Faith.

Bahá'ís believe that both Bahá'u'lláh and the Báb were messengers of God, on a par with Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, Muhammad, and Zoroaster. The Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh is the focal point of prayer for Bahá'ís all over the world, giving it an importance comparable to the Western Wall in Jerusalem for Jews and the Kaaba in Mecca for Muslims.

Born in Iran, Bahá'u'lláh was banished to Acre in what was then the Ottoman Empire, where he died in 1892. The Báb was executed in Iran in 1850, and His remains were later moved to Haifa for burial.

As a practical matter, inscription on the World Heritage list will help to ensure that the sites are protected and preserved from encroachment and other threats.

"It is recognition that it has outstanding universal value, which should be preserved for all humanity," said Michael Turner, chair of the Israel World Heritage Committee, which submitted the nomination. The Bahá'í World Centre prepared, as part of the documentation for the nomination, a comprehensive management plan detailing the measures adopted to protect and preserve the sites.

Beyond practical issues, the inscription of the Bahá'í holy places by UNESCO offers a stunning contrast to the situation of the Faith in other countries, such as Iran, where Bahá'ís are persecuted, are denied the right to practice their religion, and have had their holy buildings destroyed.

In August, for example, Benjamin Balint, writing in the Wall Street Journal, took note of UNESCO's recognition of the Bahá'í sites and the fact that they attract more than half a million visitors a year.

"At the very moment UNESCO has chosen to recognize what it calls the 'outstanding universal value' of the Carmel shrines and what they stand for, the mullahs are moved to persecute these believers who emerged from the very heart of Islam — and who represent a future that fanatical Islam has so disastrously chosen to reject," wrote Mr. Balint.