Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling

BURR RIDGE, Ill. – In his day job, Kersey H. Antia is a psychologist who
specializes in panic disorders. In his private life, Mr. Antia dons a
long white robe, slips a veil over his face and goes to work as a
Zoroastrian priest, performing rituals passed down through a patrilineal
chain of priests stretching back to ancient Persia.
After a service for the dead in which priests fed sticks of sandalwood
and pinches of frankincense into a blazing urn, Mr. Antia surveyed the
Zoroastrian faithful of the Midwest – about 80 people in saris, suits
and blue jeans.

“We were once at least 40, 50 million – can you imagine?” said Mr.
Antia, senior priest at the fire temple here in suburban Chicago. “At
one point we had reached the pinnacle of glory of the Persian Empire and
had a beautiful religious philosophy that governed the Persian kings.

“Where are we now? Completely wiped out,” he said. “It pains me to say,
in 100 years we won’t have many Zoroastrians.”

There is a palpable panic among Zoroastrians today – not only in the
United States, but also around the world – that they are fighting the
extinction of their faith, a monotheistic religion that most scholars
say is at least 3,000 years old.

Zoroastrianism predates Christianity and Islam, and many historians say
it influenced those faiths and cross-fertilized Judaism as well, with
its doctrines of one God, a dualistic universe of good and evil and a
final day of judgment.

While Zoroastrians once dominated an area stretching from what is now
Rome and Greece to India and Russia, their global population has
dwindled to 190,000 at most, and perhaps as few as 124,000, according to
a survey in 2004 by Fezana Journal, published quarterly by the
Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America. The number is
imprecise because of wildly diverging counts in Iran, once known as
Persia – the incubator of the faith.

“Survival has become a community obsession,” said Dina McIntyre, an
Indian-American lawyer in Chesapeake, Va., who has written and lectured
widely on her religion.

The Zoroastrians’ mobility and adaptability has contributed to their
demographic crisis. They assimilate and intermarry, virtually
disappearing into their adopted cultures. And since the faith encourages
opportunities for women, many Zoroastrian women are working
professionals who, like many other professional women, have few children
or none.

Despite their shrinking numbers, Zoroastrians – who follow the Prophet
Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek) – are divided over whether to accept
intermarried families and converts and what defines a Zoroastrian. An
effort to create a global organizing body fell apart two years ago after
some priests accused the organizers of embracing “fake converts” and
diluting traditions.

“They feel that the religion is not universal and is ethnic in nature,
and that it should be kept within the tribe,” said Jehan Bagli, a
retired chemist in Toronto who is a priest, or mobed, and president of
the North American Mobed Council, which includes about 100 priests.
“This is a tendency that to me sometimes appears suicidal. And they are
prepared to make that sacrifice.”

In South Africa, the last Zoroastrian priest recently died, and there is
no one left to officiate at ceremonies, said Rohinton Rivetna, a
Zoroastrian leader in Chicago who, with his wife, Roshan, was a
principal mover behind the failed effort to organize a global body. But
they have not given up.

“We have to be working together if we are going to survive,” Mr. Rivetna
said.

Although the collective picture is bleak, most individual Zoroastrians
appear to be thriving. They are well-educated and well-traveled
professionals, earning incomes that place them in the middle and upper
classes of the countries where they or their families settled after
leaving their homelands in Iran and India. About 11,000 Zoroastrians
live in the United States, 6,000 in Canada, 5,000 in England, 2,700 in
Australia and 2,200 in the Persian Gulf nations, according to the Fezana
Journal survey.

This is the second major exodus in Zoroastrian history. In Iran, after
Muslims rose to power in the seventh century A.D., historians say the
Zoroastrian population was decimated by massacres, persecution and
conversions to Islam. Seven boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees fled Iran
and landed on the coast of India in 936. Their descendants, known as
Parsis, built Mumbai, formerly Bombay, into the world capital of
Zoroastrianism.

Source:
The New York Times, USA
Sep. 6, 2006
Laurie Goodstein
www.nytimes.com
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