Zoroastrians face the exhaustion of their ancient faith

NEW YORK (AP) — Among the world’s religions today, Zoroastrianism, founded more than 3,000 years ago, is one of the oldest and most historically influential. But while its adherents maintain vibrant communities on four continents, they recognize that their numbers are discouragingly small—perhaps 125,000 worldwide.

Beginning Friday, approximately 1,200 attendees from 16 countries will assess the prospects of their faith at the four-day World Zoroastrian Congress in New York City, the first to be held in the United States since 2000.

The agenda reflects a keen awareness of the challenges their religion faces. The prospects for growth are limited, as the Zoroastrians do not try to convert outsiders and – in many cases – do not regard the children of mixed marriages as members of the faith. Yet there is also cause for optimism.

“Have we ever been to a time like this?” wondered Arzan Sam Wadia, a Mumbai-born, New York-based architect who co-chairs the Congress.

“Should we all despair and give up – ‘We can do nothing, let’s just die peacefully’ – or do we have hope for the future?” he told The Associated Press.

Here is some basic information about the faith:

HISTORY

Founded over 3,000 years ago, Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions still in existence, dating back many centuries before Christianity and Islam. However, details about its origin are imprecise.

The prophet Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, is revered as the founder of the faith, which became dominant in Persia before Arab Muslims conquered the region in the 7th century.

Wary of persecution, many Zoroastrians left for destinations in western India, particularly Mumbai and Gujarat. India’s Zoroastrian population – known as Parsis – is larger than that of any other country, although numbers there are declining as they increase in North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

BELIEFS

At its core, Zoroastrianism emphasizes a never-ending battle between good and evil—a battle between the god of religion, Ahura Mazda, and an evil spirit, Ahriman. Believers have the freedom to make good or bad choices; they were urged by Zoroaster to think good thoughts, say good words, and do good deeds.

Scholars say that these teachings and other aspects of Zoroastrianism had a significant influence on other religions, especially Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.

“You have these ideas that have fundamentally shaped Western society,” said Jamsheed Choksy, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. “Fighting the good fight, an existence purpose to do good, to make the world prosper, to work together, to respect and love each other… all that goes back to Zarathustra.”

Traditional temples house a sacred fire that is meant to burn forever. Another ancient custom: Raised, circular structures known as Towers of Silence, where dead bodies were placed to decompose rather than be buried.

CULTURE

The Nowruz holiday, which incorporates ancient Zoroastrian traditions and marks the Persian New Year, remains an important event on the Iranian calendar. It is widely celebrated on or about March 21 in other regions that were once part of the Persian Empire.

For Zoroastrians who left Iran and settled in India or eventually in more remote regions, their communities became known for producing entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Getting rich was encouraged within the faith, but with the condition that wealth should be used to help others.

Born in India in 1839, Jamsetji Tata became one of the most prominent industrialists and philanthropists of the 19th century, and the Tata Group he founded is one of the world’s largest multinational conglomerates.

Another thriving conglomerate, the Wadia Group was founded in 1736 by Parsi shipbuilder Lovji Wadia. The company built dozens of warships for Britain; his assets today include a fashion magazine, cricket team and textile and biscuit manufacturers.

However, the most famous Parsi of modern times was neither an entrepreneur nor an industrialist: Freddie Mercury, the legendary singer of the rock band Queen, was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 to Gujarat parents living in Zanzibar.

FUTURE

The possibility of further shrinking of the global Zoroastrian community will be on the minds of those attending the New York convention.

Several sessions will focus on Zoroastrians in their 20s and 30s. In describing the gathering, organizers promised that participants will come away “reassured that the fate of the faith is safe in the hands of passionate and visionary young Zoroastrians.”

Other topics on the agenda are entrepreneurship, interfaith cooperation and the role of women.

Wadia, the co-chair of the Congress, who is not related to the family behind the Wadia Group, is leading two separate initiatives aimed at strengthening the prospects of the religion.

One is a global study conducted by SOAS University of London that aims to shed light on factors that promote or inhibit the growth and vitality of Zoroastrianism.

Wadia is also program director of Zoroastrian Return To Roots, which organizes trips to India for young Zoroastrians who want to learn more about the history and culture of their religion.

Wadia is convinced that the faith will survive, but perhaps under major changes. In North America, for example, he believes adherence to specific cultural traditions could decline even if the Zoroastrians maintain a basic set of spiritual guidelines.

Zoroastrian professor Almut Hintze has described the global community as “microscopic” and is concerned about the decline of Parsis in India.

“However, Zoroastrians are doing well in the global diaspora,” she said via email. “The numbers may well stabilize, although secularization and marriage laws pose a threat.”

Choksy, a professor at Indiana University, sees North America as the most promising region for growth. He estimates that the United States and Canada are now home to more than 30,000 Zoroastrians, more than the latest figure for Iran.

“North America is where there is hope,” Choksy said. “It’s partly because of immigration, but also the communities have more children, they feel more stable. It’s the bright light.”

Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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