The dwindling Zoroastrians

Cultural Insights — By on January 5, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Most people know that Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the world’s three great monotheistic religions, all sprang from the Middle East. But how many are aware that another significant – and even older – monotheistic faith also arose in that region of the world? Zoroastrianism was born in the Persian empire, in what is now Iran, and was at one time the predominant faith across a wide swath of the ancient world. Today, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people still practice Zoroastrianism, mostly in India and Iran. Time magazine recently published a story on the Zoroastrians.

Far removed from Tehran’s bustling tin-roofed teashops and Isfahan’s verdant pomegranate gardens, the deserts known as Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut meet at the city of Yazd, once the heart of the Persian Empire…

In Yazd, the holy flame has burned for 1,500 years without ever being extinguished. While Zoroastrianism was once the dominant religion in a swathe of territory spanning from Rome and Greece to India and Russia, the number of adherents has dwindled exponentially over the centuries. Although Yazd is the birthplace of the religion, only 200 of its 433,836 people still practice Zoroastrianism because migration, forced conversions, and centuries of oppression have diminished the population.

Worldwide, there are 190,000 Zoroastrians at most, and perhaps as few as 124,000 by some estimates. Although Zoroastrians are few in number, their faith has influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam with its teachings of a single deity, a dualistic universe of good versus evil, and a final day of reckoning. The religion professes that humankind is designed to evolve toward perfection, but is complicated by evil forces such as greed, lust and hatred, explains Mehraban Firouzgary, the head priest of the Zoroastrian temple in Tehran. According to Zoroastrians, these evil forces must be challenged proactively by developing a “good mind” that embraces a life of good thoughts, good words and good deeds…

According to Parva Namiranian, a Zoroastrian medical student at Tehran University, the community in Iran preserves its identity by learning the Persian poetry of the Shah Nameh and holding religious classes and celebrations. She says Zoroastrians are accepted in Iran because they “represent a proud history” and all Iranians, regardless of religion, enjoy celebrating the Zoroastrian New Year, Nowruz, because it’s an excuse to buy clothes and eat sweets. Mehraban Firouzgary, the head priest in the Zoroastrian temple in Tehran, agrees that most Iranians regard the Zoroastrian minority favorably, but he worries about the community’s survival. “Zoroastrians have lived in Iran for over 3,000 years,” he says, “but there are so few left today.”

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