In the Middle East, Haifa is known as one of the region’s most ethnically and religiously diverse cities, including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze and Baha’is among its residents.
And so it was fitting that on her first visit to the Baha’i gardens here, the Director General of UNESCO spoke of the challenges facing multi-cultural societies.
“Managing diversity raises some of the most difficult questions of this 21st century – inside our societies and outside, with our neighbors and globally,” said Irina Bokova, formerly the Foreign Affairs Minister for Bulgaria.
Ms. Bokova was speaking at a special ceremony held in the Baha’i gardens to inaugurate the UNESCO for Tolerance and Peace Square, situated at the point where Haifa’s historic German Templer colony meets the terraced gardens of the Shrine of the Bab.
The newly-named square in Haifa will “stand for the tolerance and the peace that we seek to build and to deepen – in this region, and across the world,” she remarked.
“I am more than convinced that the only ways to build a more peaceful and equitable world are through education and dialogue – to deepen understanding, to strengthen mutual respect and to prepare the ground for reconciliation…” said Ms. Bokova who, in October 2009, became the first woman to head the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“If wars start in the minds of men; it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed,” she said, citing the UNESCO manifesto.
The ceremony also coincided with the 10th anniversary of the official opening in May 2001 of the garden terraces of the Shrine of the Bab. In 2008, a UNESCO committee meeting held in Quebec, Canada – at which Ms. Bokova was present – decided to inscribe the Shrine and terraces, along with the Shrine of Baha’u’llah near Acre, on the World Heritage list, as sites of “outstanding universal value.”
Future development plans for the UNESCO for Tolerance and Peace Square include upgraded stonework and decorative floral plantings in the centre of its traffic circle, establishing a symbolic bridge between the German Templer colony and the Baha’i gardens.
Secretary General of the Baha’i International Community, Albert Lincoln, welcomed Ms. Bokova to the ceremony, along with other invited guests including the Mayor of Haifa, Advocate Yona Yahav; the Most Reverend Dr. Elias Chacour, Archbishop Metropolitan of the Melkite Catholic Church for Acre, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee; and other representatives of Haifa’s Arab and Jewish communities.
“Haifa really is a city of peace and a living example of how the Middle East could and should be,” said Dr. Lincoln, describing as “normality” the wide variety of religious, ethnic and cultural groups who live and work side by side in the city.
“Normality need not explain itself, but perhaps we do need to remind ourselves and others from time to time of its essential foundations,” said Dr. Lincoln.
“The human race, with all its diversity, is one family…” he said. “But even in the city of peace, normality cannot be taken for granted. It needs nurturing and defense.”
Thanking Ms. Bokova and her staff for their work, Dr. Lincoln concluded, “UNESCO plays a leading role in the critical work of nurturing and defending this kind of normality all around the world by promoting peace, education and the recognition of the universal values in the infinite diversity of the world’s cultures.”