Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
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Indian Zoroastrians, Divided Over Conversion, Face a Shrinking Future
01 April 2007
(CAIS) -- By Rana Rosen - As a high school boy in Minnesota, Joseph Peterson spent the late 1960s reading at the local library, passing over Mad Magazine or sci-fi novels in favor of ancient religious texts.
The scripture of the Zoroastrians -- the faith of the old Persian Empire -- captured the Christian teenager with its reverence for nature and belief that God created good but not evil.
"It was years before I would meet another Zoroastrian," he said. Donning a "sudra," or sacred white shirt tied with a chord, Peterson began to dress, pray and think of himself as a Zoroastrian. He was unaware, however, that he was entering a faith that forbids converts.
The religion's closed-door policy might be unremarkable if it was thriving. But Zoroastrianism, once a major religion considered by some experts to be the first monotheistic faith, is in danger of extinction with an estimated 160,000 adherents across the globe. A more generous estimate puts that figure at 276,000.
Today, Peterson, 52, is the only widely accepted convert in the United States. The few who recognized him as an equal sparked a fiery debate within Zoroastrianism when he was officially converted in 1983.
Now, the still-raging conversion disagreement -- mostly between Zoroastrian immigrants in North America and hard-line conservatives in India who have preserved the community there for more than 1,000 years -- has prompted a new soul-searching question: Are they are a religion open to all or an insular ethnic line with common ancestors?
The fate of the world's dwindling Zoroastrian community may depend on the answer. And each camp -- the "orthodoxy" and the "reformists," as they are called -- resents the question.
The orthodoxy treasures the rituals of the tradition and is dead set against interfaith marriage. Zoroastrians, they say, are born, not made.
Khojeste Mistree, an Oxford-educated community leader among the orthodoxy in India, talks about his concerns passionately with a twinge of fury and flabbergast. "You need someone to take a principled stand rather than a stance of convenience," he says.
The reformists, meanwhile, assert that their prophet Zarathushtra had a message open to everyone wanting to live "the good life" and it should not die out. They say the religion grew insular due to the circumstances of history, not because Zoroastrians were meant to be a closed clan.
"We are not committed to India," says Keki Bhote, a Motorola retiree who is an active reformist living in Illinois. "We have a responsibility here in North America to keep up the religion of the Zoroastrians and not to become extinct."
Despite the polar extremes, most Zoroastrians are somewhere in the middle.
"Our community needs to get together worldwide," says Rohinton Rivetna of Hinsdale, Ill., a leader of the Zoroastrian community in North America.
Before the 1960s, the question was irrelevant since the Zoroastrians were clustered in Iran and India for 3,000 years.
Zarathushtra gave birth to the faith sometime around 1500 B.C. in Iran, the land of ancient Persia. Experts say the faith flourished -- with followers numbering in the millions -- under Persian emperor Cyrus the Great.
"Zoroastrianism is the oldest of the revealed credal religions, and it has probably had more influence on mankind, directly and indirectly, than any other single faith," wrote the late world-renowned Zoroastrian scholar Mary Boyce in one of her many books on the faith.
Experts say Zarathushtra's beliefs in one supreme God (known as Ahura Mazda), individual judgment, the future resurrection of the body, heaven and hell, a final judgment, and the reunification of the soul and body influenced Judaism and eventually Christianity and Islam.
When Persians faced a tide of forced conversion with the Muslim invasion during the seventh century, Zoroastrianism began a struggle for survival that continues to this day.
"For 1,400 years, Islam was one-way traffic," said Ali Jafarey, a Zoroastrian community leader of a controversial group who was born Muslim in Iran but "returned" to Zoroastrianism. He now lives in California. "Either you went their way or no way."
After about 200 years, a group of Zoroastrians left Persia in search of religious freedom and landed on the coast of India. The migrants to India -- who became known as Parsis -- preserved their traditions with the fervor of a community of immigrants that knew their relatives were under severe persecution in Iran. Their dedication, despite adopting some Indian practices, has remained strong.
But the Zoroastrians began to spread themselves thinly across the globe, joining a mass migration of opportunity seekers from India in the 1960s and fleeing Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Estimates on the number of Zoroastrians in North America vary, from about 20,000 to 25,000, according to FEZANA, the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America. The bulk of Zoroastrians remain in Iran -- about 157,000, according to a 2000 estimate -- and India (about 76,000).
In America, they found a new threat to their shrinking population: assimilation. Zoroastrians had a hard time telling their children to marry within the faith when there were few to none around to wed.
North American Zoroastrians continue working out these issues. But pressure has mounted, as members of the first generation reach retirement, wondering whether they have helped preserve their religion by steeping children in its traditions. Some in the diaspora wonder if they were too focused on financial stability and education to make the role of religion central to their children's lives.
Rivetna, an engineer by training, has a long checklist, marking his efforts to build an infrastructure for Zoroastrians in North America. He organized the Chicago community in the 1970s, and then the North American Zoroastrians in the 1980s. Now he is working to create a worldwide body.
The orthodoxy, however, refuses to shelter converts under the same umbrella, and so the small number of Zoroastrians worldwide cannot yet be bound together.
"Maybe it is because it is the nature of Zoroastrians to quarrel," says Bhote, the retiree in Illinois. "As the saying goes, `If there are two Zoroastrians, they will form two organizations. If there is one, he will look in the mirror and quarrel with himself."
Bhote sees only one prayer for keeping this religion alive -- the highly controversial Zarathushtrian Assembly in Southern California.
The group, founded and run by Jafarey, is the only one to actively offer information about the religion and to offer conversion -- a concept that has been taboo among Zoroastrians who felt that they should never covert others after their ancestors were forced into Islam.
"If people are exposed to the beautiful nature of the religion, if they find that this religion meets the needs of the 21st century, why don't we bring them in without any pressure?" Bhote asks.
Jafarey, now in his 80s, runs a simple operation for keeping his religion alive. He puts information on the Internet, and takes calls and questions from places as far away as Brazil. "The Internet is a wonderful means of getting in touch with anyone in the world nowadays," he said.
Others disagree with the assembly's work, often vehemently.
"Ali Jafarey and other bogus non-Zoroastrians have started a missionary movement to `convert' all and sundry to our faith," writes a member of the Parsi orthodoxy on the Internet. "Ali Jafarey is an enemy of our religion." For his part, Peterson doesn't take sides.
Now a father of two teenage daughters, Peterson has brought his girls to visit the Midwest Zoroastrian community in the Chicago area. Together they have sat through discussions on whether to accept converts seemingly unaffected. Then again, he never expected to have a community anyway.
"For me," he says, "it's mainly a religious thing."
more about conversion to Zoroastrian
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