Associated Press, Apr. 4, 2003
MICHAEL BUETTNER, Associated Press
VIENNA, Va. – One of the world’s oldest religions is establishing a new, American temple for the faith outside the nation’s capital, the Zoroastrian Center and Darb-e-Mehr.
“You will see a magnificent building that reminds you of old Persian architecture,” said Farhad Shahryary, assistant secretary of the Temple Committee. “This is a really a joyful day. There’s been a lot of hard work. This has been a dream for about 20 years.”
Once the state religion of an empire that stretched throughout much of the ancient world, Zoroastrianism now has only about 200,000 adherents worldwide (some estimates say the number is fewer). Up to 15,000 believers are in the United States.
The darb-e-mehr, or fire temple, will be home to members of the 24-year-old Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington, said Jamshid Goshtasbi, the group’s president.
Ground was broken on the fire temple last week – fire having importance in the faith as a symbol of eternal truth and law.
“It was decided to have something really big, being in the capital of the United States, which is basically the capital of the world,” Goshtasbi said. “This will be a national center, a world center.”
Zoroastrianism is considered among the oldest monotheistic religions and is named for its prophet Zarathushtra – in Greek, Zoroaster. Tradition holds that the faith was founded around 8000 B.C., though there is wide disagreement among scholars about the faith’s true historical origins; many say it perhaps emerged around 1200 B.C. or even centuries later.
The faith reached its zenith as the state religion of the Persian empire, in present-day Iran, until the seventh century A.D., when it was supplanted by Islam.
While Zoroastrianism is tolerated by the Quran, adherents were periodically persecuted and Zoroastrian groups migrated into India and Pakistan in the 10th century, where they are known today as Parsis.
The Washington area’s Zoroastrian community is not the largest in the country, but it has been growing, due in large part to sectarian and political turmoil in the members’ ancestral nations, notably Iran. Currently, membership amounts to some 500 families.
Goshtasbi said the largest number of Zoroastrians in America live in California, where there is a large Iranian population. Like Goshtasbi, a professor of electrical engineering at Howard University, most of them are here because of upheaval elsewhere in the world.
“I am from Iran, originally,” he said. “I came here right before the Islamic revolution in 1978. I came here to finish my education and go back in four years, and now it’s more than 20 years.”
In some parts of the country, Zoroastrians were the targets of harassment following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because of their Middle Eastern or South Asian origins.
However, Goshtasbi said he had not heard of any such incidents in the Washington area. “I think people here are aware that not everyone from Iran or India or Pakistan is a Muslim,” he said.
In Iran under its pre-revolutionary ruler, Shah Reza Pahlavi, nationalism encouraged citizens to take pride in Zoroastrianism as the country’s historical religion. Zoroastrians were able to attain positions of considerable prestige in society and government.
Among them was Farhang Mehr, now a professor at Boston University, who served as deputy prime minister of Iran under Pahlavi. “I hope this center will be a place where we invite members of other religions. Don’t be afraid, let them come and learn,” Mehr said.
With their relatively small numbers, two hot topics in the denomination are traditionalist Zoroastrians’ condemnation of marriage outside the faith and their refusal to recognize converts.
Still, Zoroastrian numbers are growing in the United States and other Western countries, so it appears less likely today than just a few decades ago that this long-established faith will become extinct.
On The Net
Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington: http://www.zamwi.org/
Zoroastrian Archives: http://www.avesta.org/