Pilgrims' peace in a battle zone

Amid the maelstrom that is the Middle East, a young world religion has its international headquarters at a place where missiles have exploded and warplanes have thundered overhead.

Pilgrims have prayed for peace as war has raged around them this summer until a tentative truce took effect last week.

They are members of the Baha'i faith, an infant among the world's monotheistic religions, with roots in Iran and headquarters in Israel. They're an odd, ironic and unintended bridge across the divide between Hezbollah and Israel, Shiite and Jew. They are in the center, yet on the sidelines, an island of peace in a sea of war.

While both Israel and Hezbollah talk about their fight in terms of survival, the Baha'is, with links to each side, steadfastly declare themselves neutral.

They've built their headquarters in Haifa, where a shrine that draws pilgrims rises on Mount Carmel. When other people were fleeing Katyusha rockets in recent weeks, Baha'i pilgrims were still trekking there. They routinely save and wait for years for permission from Baha'i leaders to make the trip to the religion's holy sites. One is on the terraced slopes of Mount Carmel. The other, the shrine to the religion's founder, is sandwiched between the towns of Akko and Nahariya. It is the holiest site on the planet for members of the faith.

{josquote}...while Baha'is trace their religion to Iran and the Shiite branch of Islam, members of the faith do not side with the Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas that wage war with Israel.{/josquote}

"For Baha'is to go on pilgrimage, you place your application and you have to wait for five years or more to be invited," said Cesar Cortes, 45, who left from Chicago last month.

The faith, which aspires to world peace and a universal society, remains aloof spiritually, if not physically, from the troubles in the region.

"We have managed to ride through all of the conflicts during the last 100 years," spokesman Glen Fullmer said.

"We really don't care who the civil authority is in that part of the world. Our concern is that our religious endowments be recognized and that we be permitted to exist as a religious minority in that part of the world."

Full story...