Inside story

Decision expected in legal battle over ‘holy’ classification of Baha’i gardens in Acre

Bahji Gardens are closed to the public as Baha’i leadership battles city’s decision to lift tax exemption and charge community NIS 7 million a year for faith founder’s burial spot

Baha'i worshippers in the Bahji Gardens in Acre. (Courtesy Baha'i World Center)
Baha'i worshippers in the Bahji Gardens in Acre. (Courtesy Baha'i World Center)

Although never seen on any lists of Israel’s top 10 tourism spots — unlike their more famous cousin, the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa — the sprawling Bahji Gardens in coastal Acre in northern Israel are the holiest place for the Baha’i Faith’s estimated 5-8 million adherents and the final resting place of the religion’s founder, Bahá’u’llah.

For years, due to its religious status, hundreds of dunams (there are four dunams to the acre) of the Bahji Gardens were recognized by the Acre municipality as a holy site of worship entitled to exemption from property tax. However, at the end of 2018, the city changed its mind and canceled the exemption for 80 percent of the complex, classifying it as a tourism site instead. Because the gardens cover so much ground, the property tax would add up to some NIS 7 million ($1.9 million) a year.

The first court hearing on the tax exemption case was held in December and a decision is expected to be handed down at the next hearing, on Monday.

After receiving the 2018 property tax invoice, the Baha’i World Center made a plea to the city’s appeals committee. At the hearing, the municipality’s representative admitted that the newly drawn line between sacred and regular space had been decided on without the Baha’i leadership’s knowledge, and without consulting a community member or anyone who understands Baha’i customs.

The municipality’s new opinion was that full exemption can legally only be given to a “house of worship,” which requires the existence of a building. However, since the Baha’i religion does not utilize buildings for prayer, the municipality concluded that the exemption should be removed.

As a result of the municipality’s downgrade of the site, the Baha’i World Center decided to close the gardens to the public and allow entry to pilgrims alone. Visitors to the site nowadays would find the parking lot empty and the gates closed.

A view of the Bahji Gardens in Acre, January 2024. (Nurit Malkin/Times of Israel)

In the appeal against the new invoice, the Baha’i community claimed that the entirety of the well-groomed gardens is a “house of prayer” where wandering and meditating in the garden is an integral part of the faith’s worship.

This was backed by an expert witness on the Baha’i religion, Prof. Moshe Sharon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The tax legislation itself recognizes houses of prayer other than churches, mosques, or synagogues as entitled to the exemption, including them in the clause “other house of prayer.”

The Finance Committee’s protocol from a meeting held in 2003 shows that the term “other house of prayer” has indeed been seen as referring to the unique situation of the Baha’i Faith, which was founded in Iran in the 19th century.

Despite all this, the appeals committee ultimately dismissed the petition, and following this ruling, the Baha’i appealed to the Administrative Court.

The tomb of Baháʼu’lláh (right) and the house he lived in (left) in the Bahji Gardens in Acre, January 2024. (Nurit Malkin/Times of Israel)

Acre Municipality said in a statement that it occasionally carried out property tax assessments to ensure the city is complying with the law.

“Under- or over-charging is illegal, and therefore, the municipality occasionally carries out factual and legal tests aimed at adapting the assessments to the municipal property tax order and the law,” said the statement.

A view of the Bahji Gardens in Acre, January 2024. (Nurit Malkin/Times of Israel)

It added that it is aided in this task by a variety of professional services and that professionals in the municipality asked the Barak-Git-Mistriel-Leabovich law firm to consult for them on the Bahji Gardens tax exemption.

The decision to cancel the exemption, the municipality said, was made as a result of a series of meetings held over a long period. The Acre municipality ended by vowing to continue carrying out assessments of all property owners in the city to “uncover the facts and adapt the tax to the factual and legal situation.”

Translated and edited from the original Hebrew article originally published on ToI’s sister site Zman Yisrael.

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