Inside the silent, dim room of the serene shrine, a few Bahai faithfulmeditated cross-legged, heads bowed, eyes closed and hands clasped abovethe 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 theprophet Bahaullah. Followers of the Bahai faith believe he was sent tolead humanity into an age of universal peace.
In a place where more than 450 people have been killed in months ofclashes between Israelis and Palestinians, that hope can seem far away.
Iran Hessami, 50, a pilgrim from Vancouver, Canada, prayed inside theshrine, perched on the slopes of Mount Carmel overlooking thisMediterranean port city.
``I prayed for peace of the world,'' she said, following a line ofpilgrims smiling at two Arab couples taking wedding photographs in thegardens. ``I am praying not only for the Bahai people, but all thepeople 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 toschool because their mother was Bahai.
About 130 years earlier, one of the religion's founders, the Bab -- whoforetold the coming of the prophet Bahaullah -- was shot to death inIran along with 20,000 followers. Islamic clergy apparently feltthreatened by the growing popularity of the religion.
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 housearrest until his death in 1892.
While under arrest, Bahaullah and the Bab wrote poems, ethical andsocial teachings and mystical writings, which form the basis of thereligion.
The world's 5 million Bahai are scattered throughout the globe, with anestimated 130,000 living in the United States. They teach the importanceof abandoning all prejudice and recognize equality of the sexes and theessential unity and common themes of all religions.
``The Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens,'' saidBahaullah, who is considered by Bahais to be the last of a line ofprophets that included Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed.
Bahais are still considered heretics in Iran and are not recognized inthe Iranian constitution as a religious minority. Islamic authoritiesthere executed some 200 Bahais in the 1980s, and thousands have sincereportedly fled the country to escape persecution.
Before he died in Acre, Bahaullah pointed across a bay to Mount Carmelin Haifa and said that the Bab's remains should be buried there and ashrine built.
The structure was first built on the site in 1909, and improvements andadditions have been made ever since. Anne Wong, a spokeswoman for thecenter, said that the terraced gardens, which took 10 years and cost$250 million to develop, complete the project and fulfill Bahaullah'swish.
Recently, journalists were invited to preview the gardens, whosecompletion will be formally celebrated on May 22 in a ceremony to beattended by 3,000 believers from around the world.
``The real message of these terraces is one about the victory of loveover violence,'' said Albert Lincoln, secretary-general of the BahaiInternational 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 denyhim a decent burial. The Bahais of the world answered that hatred withlove.''
Lincoln said he hopes visitors, in particular Muslims and Jews in theMiddle East, will feel that love and perhaps explore the message of theBahais, who say believers in all religions are equal under one God.
Their terraces illuminated by 2,000 lamps, the gardens symbolize theBahai faith, said Fariborz Sahba, the Iranian-born architect whodesigned the gardens.
``The meaning of the design is in those memories of those dark nights ofthe 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 stepsthrough the center of the garden, which smells of flowers and herbs.
``The visitor feels they are walking through a spiritual garden, not abeautiful garden,'' Sahba said. ``You can buy the beauty. You cannot buythe spirit.''