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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Ancient but few in number, Zoroastrians face their lack of faith

NEW YORK ( Associated Press) — Zoroastrianism, founded more than 3,000 years ago, is one of the most ancient and historically influential of the world’s current religions. While its adherents maintain vibrant communities on four continents, they acknowledge that their numbers are small – perhaps 125,000 worldwide.

Starting Friday, about 1,200 attendees from 16 countries will assess their faith prospects during the four-day World Zoroastrian Congress in New York City, the first held in the United States since 2000.

The agenda reflects a deep awareness of the challenges facing their religion. Growth prospects are limited, given that Parsis do not wish to convert outsiders and – in many cases – do not consider children of mixed marriages to be members of the faith. Yet there are some reasons for optimism.

Read more: Faith leaders react with joy, anger to the reversal of Row

“Have we ever lived in such a time?” Arjan Sam Wadia, the Mumbai-born, New York-based architect who is the co-president of Congress, wonders.

“Should we all give up in despair – ‘we can’t do anything, let’s just die in peace’ – or do we have hope for the future?” He told the Associated Press.

Here is some basic information about faith:


Founded more than 3,000 years ago, Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions still in existence, predating Christianity and Islam by several centuries. Although the details of its origin are not accurate.

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

Aware of persecution, many Parsis left for destinations in western India, particularly Mumbai and Gujarat. India’s Parsi population – known as Parsis – is larger than that of any other country, although numbers have been declining there while increasing in North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.


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

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

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

Traditional temples have a sacred fire to burn forever. Another ancient custom: raised, circular structures known as Towers of Silence, where bodies were kept to decompose rather than buried.


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

Parsis who left Iran and settled in India or eventually more distant regions, their communities became famous for producing entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Becoming wealthy was encouraged within the faith, but with the provision that the money should be used to help others.

Jamsetji Tata, born in India in 1839, went on to become one of the most prominent industrialists and philanthropists of the 19th century, and the Tata Group he founded, one of the largest multinational conglomerates in the world.

Another prosperous group, the Wadia Group, was founded in 1736 by the Parsi shipbuilder Lavji Wadia. The company built several warships for Britain; Its holdings today include a fashion magazine, a cricket team and a manufacturer of textiles and biscuits.

However the most famous Parsis of modern times were neither entrepreneurs nor industrialists: Freddie Mercury, the famous lead singer of the rock band Queen, was born as Farokh Bulsara in 1946 to Gujarat parents who were living in Zanzibar .


The prospect of a further shrinking of the global Parsi community will be very much on the minds of attendees at the New York Congress.

Many sessions will focus on Parsi people in their 20s and 30s. Describing the gathering, the organizers promised that participants “will be reassured that Faith’s destiny is safe in the hands of passionate and visionary young Parsis.”

Other themes on the agenda include entrepreneurship, inter-religious cooperation and the role of women.

See more: WATCH: Vice President Harris holds roundtable with faith leaders on reproductive health care

Wadia, the Congress co-president who does not belong to the Wadia group’s family, has played a major role in two separate initiatives aimed at strengthening the possibilities of religion.

The first is a global survey being conducted by SOAS University in London that aims to shed light on the factors that are promoting or hindering the growth and vitality of Zoroastrianism.

Wadia is also the Program Director of Parsi Return to Roots, which organizes trips to India for young Parsi people who want to learn more about the history and culture of their religion.

Wadia is confident that the faith will prevail, but perhaps undergoing major changes. For example, in North America, they believe that adherence to specific cultural traditions may be low, even though Zoroastrians maintain a basic set of spiritual guidelines.

Alamut Hintz of SOAS University, a professor of Zoroastrianism, has described the global community as “subtly small” and expressed concern about the decline of Zoroastrianism in India.

“However, Zoroastrians are doing well in the global diaspora,” she said via email. “It may well be that the numbers are going to stabilize, although secularism and marriage laws pose dangers.”

Indiana University professor Choksi sees North America as the most promising region for development. He estimates that there are now more than 30,000 Parsis in the United States and Canada, which exceeds Iran’s latest figure.

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

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

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