Atef Sedkaoui Wows French Audience at “The Voice”

The French TV show “The Voice” recently featured an aspiring singer who impressed the judges and the audience with his touching rendition of “Ben” by Michael Jackson:

European visitors may be able to view the video here. Others can see a shorter version here.

The singer, Atef Sedkaoui, is hardly an amateur. Born in Marseille, France to Tunisian parents he has been singing since early childhood. Here he is more than 10 years ago at the celebrations for the opening of the terraces in Haifa:

For more information check out his personal website.

“Kind of Like a Theme Park… But a Holy One”

The recent completion of the renovation of the Shrine of the Bab has lead to Time magazine to feature a short article on the Baha’i World Center in Haifa and its gardens:

Stepping into the gardens of the Shrine of the Bab is like entering a hallucination. They rise in steps all the way up the mountainside above Haifa’s downtown, and at the midway point, at midmorning, the clear light off the Mediterranean combines with the precise efforts of 150 gardeners to achieve a combination of lucid depth and dazzling color.

The Little Religion That Persists: The Baha’i in Israel

The Time magazine journalist talks to Rob Weinberg who is one of the BWC’s external communication people as well as to several regular people visiting the gardens.

Jonas Mejer, a student visiting from Copenhagen says:

“It’s kind of like a theme park, where they’re keeping everything ‘just so’.?But it’s a holy place.”

I chuckled after reading that because it displays a child-like innocence and honesty. My own impression after visiting the gardens was that they were maintained and manicured to an inch of their lives.

From afar they were much more beautiful than from up close. It is difficult to explain or perhaps I lack the eloquence of Jonas but there was a cosmetic vibe to it that didn’t sit well with me. I suppose the House of Justice is only trying to maintain the high standards set by Shoghi Effendi when he, with his own hands, created the gardens with much effort and sacrifice.

You won’t have to look far to guess what one of my most favorite spots was in the gardens (look up!).

Here is a short video from August 2010 from CNN.com talking with Rob Weinberg:

Egyptians Celebrate World Religion Day Early

Next Sunday, January 16th 2011, is the 3rd Sunday of January and that means that it will be celebrated worldwide as “World Religion Day” by Baha’i communities around the world.

The observance of WRD began in 1950 when a few weeks earlier in December 1949, the NSA of the Baha’is of the United States issued a simple proclamation:

The National Spritiual Assembly has instituted an annual World Religion Day to be observed publicly by the Baha’i communities whenever possible throughout the United States.

So look for events in your local community.

But the Egyptians honored the spirit of World Religion Day a bit early this year.

The Coptic Orthodox Christian church and believers in Egypt have always had a very uneasy and difficult time in Egypt. They have suffered major discrimination and even violence on a regular basis. Last week on New Year’s Eve, they suffered an especially painful attack when a suicide bomber detonated at Saints Church in Alexandria and killed 21 people.

The Muslim community of Egypt responded to a call by prominent liberal minded Egyptian muslims such as Mohamed El-Sawy to rally in support of the beleaguered minority and hold candle light vigils around Coptic churches this Friday during their mass.

In this way, the Muslims proclaimed their solidarity with their Christian brethren and faced terrorism head on, declaring that the attack was not just against the Copts but on Egypt itself. For more, see this article from ahram online.

Of course, as with all extremists, there is more than enough discrimination and violence to go around. The Baha’i community in Egypt has also been battling a very difficult problem for many years. The Baha’is are not only faced with the same discrimination but an even thornier issue.

This being that the Egyptian government would not issue proper government documents to Baha’is because it did not recognize the Baha’i Faith as a religion. This lead to a host of complications for Egyptian Baha’is. There has been some slight shifts in the policy but it is far from resolved. For more details and to keep up with back story and developments, visit the Baha’i Faith in Egypt blog.

To give you an example of the type of froward attitudes faced by Baha’is in Egypt, here is a sample of several clips from Egyptian TV with English subtitles:

The first few minutes of the video features Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sheik, the former president of Al-Azhar. Yes, that Al-Azhar…

Disney Amusement Park Coming to Haifa

Disney World is coming to Haifa, Israel!

Well, sort of.

Walt Disney Company’s investment arm Shamrock Holdings in partnership with the local privately owned firm, New Lineo Cinemas, will build a massive 30,000-square meter Disney amusement park as well as a 25 screen theatre complex and shopping plazas. The project is still in development stages but it is estimated to cost $170 million (600 million shekels) and to be completed by 2013.

The Disney amusement park will be located at a 20 acre empty plot of land adjoining other existing cinemas, but rather far from the Baha’i gardens and shrines (denoted by ‘A’ on the map):

Disney Haifa Location

Click to see larger image

The transition of Haifa from an industrial port city with heavy industries, factories and corrosively bad air quality is gaining pace with this project. Haifa is already famous within Israel for its diverse community of people who live in peaceful coexistence. Hopefully, the transformation will continue and the city will come to reflect economic diversity as well with less pollution causing service businesses like this.

One news report had this amusing quote:

If things go as planned, Haifa’s landmark sites such as the Bahai Temple or the Carmelite cable car could soon be replaced by Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and friends.

Perhaps this might be a good time to remind my dear fellow Baha’is that the point of pilgrimage is not and never has been to Haifa or the surrounding areas. So where is it then?

That, I’m happy to tell you, is “a little known fact”.

Haifa Fire Does Not Threaten Baha’i World Centre

After the driest conditions in 60 years, the region of Northern Israel has been on fire for the past few days. The fire is thought to have started near the Druze village of Isfiya (Osfiya/Ussefia) and quickly spread north. A bus carrying prisoners from Damon prison and their guard escort were caught in the fire and perished. A total of 42 people are thought to have died but forensic examination is continuing because the remains are so badly affected by the fire.

The fire moved up to Haifa University and was so close to the Denya district that many there were evacuated. But the fire then moved west and is now hopefully contained in the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature preserve (the green area to the left of Haifa University):

As you can see from the map, before the fire can even approach the Baha’i World Centre on Mount Carmel, the fire would have to hypothetically go through several major residential neighbourhoods. There is very little risk of that and with international help, Israel will hopefully be able to contain the fire and put it out by the weekend. Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, France, UK, Croatia, Russia, Spain, and Romania have sent firefighting airplanes to Israel to combat the fire.

Here is a map showing the fire areas in red and the evacuation areas in blue (thanks to Steve at Bahaisonline.net):

You can keep up to date with the dynamic version of this map.

Update:
You can see some stunning pictures of the Haifa fire here.