ACRE, Israel -- From the corners of the world they came Friday, 3,000 people gathered under a starless sky at 3 a.m. to slap at mosquitoes and stare in long silence at an alabaster house with Miami-blue shutters.
"This is the greatest occasion of my life," sighed Ida Putnam, who traveled from Eagle River, Alaska, to join the crowd.
They are followers of the little-known religion of Baha'i, and their founder died in this house on the seacoast exactly 100 years ago. His tomb is in an adjoining building, guarded by gilded peacocks.
As roosters warned of dawn, loudspeakers in the garden of the house boomed florid hosannas to mark the anniversary of "the ascent of Baha'ullah . . . the King of Kings . . . the world's greatest luminary."
The gathering was part of a new public visibility of this usually obscure faith, which has roots in Islam but claims to embrace all the faiths.
The rapid growth of the religion-- it now claims 5 million followers, a tenfold increase in 30 years -- and the beginning of its second century have helped spotlight the Baha'is.
It has also drawn attention to its oddities: Baha'is espouse tolerance, but are among the most persecuted of faiths. They have scattered about the globe to spread their faith.
And this youngest of major religions has chosen to keep its world headquarters in Israel, a land already bitterly contested by followers of three older religions, the Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The ceremony in Acre was a strange mix of the mystical Middle East and the modern West. People who at their Western homes are conservative accountants, straight-laced businessmen and serious scientists marched in a candlelight procession. It was heralded by eerie Persian chants and droning Arabic prayers that mimicked ancient ritual.
They meditated in the cool night along with villagers who traveled from Africa, islanders from Togo, Indians and Laplanders and Russians. The 150 nations represented constituted "probably the most diverse group of people ever assembled on earth," claimed one official.
"This gathering is the will of God," said Paul Jensen, a 57-year-old Panamanian. "This is a uniting of the hearts of man."
Baha'i headquarters are in Haifa, just south of their founder's tomb in Acre, an ancient Crusader port on the Mediterranean Sea. The Baha'is came to most recent notice about five years ago during Iranian executions of their followers. But mostly they have spread their faith quietly.
It could pass for a New Age religion: it espouses equality of women, racial integration, concern for the environment, and a "we-are-the-world" view of humanity and religion.
But its roots are in 19th-century Persia. A wealthy young merchant now known as the "Bab" (the Gate) shocked the Muslim followers of Mohammed in what is now Iran by declaring himself a prophet, and was promptly dispatched by a firing squad in a public square in 1850.
Among the small band who believed his claim was Mirza Husayn Ali, a landed gentleman. He declared himself to be the one whom the "Bab" had predicted, and his followers called him the Baha'ullah (Glory of God). Because of the influence of his family, he was not killed, but was imprisoned and then deported.
He was sent first to Baghdad, and eventually to a desolate penal colony in what was then Palestine, where he produced the prolific writings that now guide the religion. He died of a fever at age 75.
Baha'i leaders call theirs the youngest major religion, among the fastest-growing. They say there are now followers in 214 nations.
Baha'is in Greater Baltimore estimate their number at 250, and most of them turned up at the Sheraton Inner Harbor last week for the 100th anniversary of the ascension of Baha'ullah.
The religion's most fevered opposition has been at the place of its birth -- Iran. Its claim that Baha'ullah is the equal of Mohammed is considered vile heresy to the strict Islamic clergy of Iran.
Claims of the number of Baha'is killed in Iran range from 2,000 to 20,000. Baha'i leaders have described the thorough repression of Iranian Baha'is: They were forced out of jobs and required to repay past salaries, their children were refused entry to school, there was no penalty for killing a Baha'i.
International pressure has eased conditions for Baha'is in Iran, though the persecution continues, according to Polin Navidi Rafat, a 45-year-old social worker whose family left Iran for Norway.
"The minds of the people have been poisoned against the Baha'is over the centuries," she said. "The Iranian government says we are not moral people, we are spies of the British or the Russians or the American CIA or the Israelis."
They are unwelcome in many other Muslim nations. Even in tolerant Egypt, Baha'is are denied civil liberties such as the right to get married. So they have built their international headquarters in Haifa, in a Jewish state.
A grand gold-domed shrine towers over the modern urban sprawl of Haifa, and elaborately manicured gardens are a calm island of green in the bustle of Israel's largest port city. The shrine contains the remains of the Bab. Next to it are columned white buildings of the church administration, the Universal House of Justice.
J. Douglas Martin, author of a text on the religion and a Baha'i official, describes the church's presence in Haifa as the consequence of events. "History brought us here, and here we remain," he said.
But the Baha'is have clearly struck a pact with the host government, once the Ottoman empire, then the British and now Israel. The church prohibits signing up new members in Israel -- the only place in the world where that is banned. In return, the international headquarters operates undisturbed.
The 600 staff members who work at the headquarters are shuttled in from other nations for a rotation of a few years. They do not proselytize.
"They keep a very low profile in this country," said one Jewish scholar of religions. "They are almost unnoticed."
"I don't know any Bahai's," said a Haifa resident who works only a few hundred yards from the headquarters. "I never hear of them."
Mr. Martin acknowledges the advantages of the arrangement for the Baha'is: "It's been a great protection to the international headquarters," he said. "We are untroubled by the intensely antagonistic atmosphere" of the region.
The Baha'is say they aim to be good citizens in all nations. Followers are instructed to obey the laws of where they live. For example, Bahai's are pacifists, but if a government requires them to serve in the military and go to war, they will do so.
Baha'is say all religions are equally valid. But while they describe theirs as a "common-sense" religion without dogma, they
worship a bewildering lineage of masters, and have their own guidelines.
They believe a gradual evolution of mankind will erase the barriers of nations, religion and race, and ultimately civilization will achieve a state of harmony.
"Eventually, all of the people of the world will come under the influence of this faith," said Donald Rogers, 57, a Canadian artist who volunteered to work in Haifa. "This is the foundation of the New World Order."