What do you do when your young people want to marry and your old people come to die, but the nearest priest available to mark such milestones lives thousands of miles away?
For Coloradans who practice Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest and most fragile religions, the question has been a vexing one – until Sunday.
Rumi Engineer, an immigration lawyer from Littleton, was admitted into the priesthood of his 5,000- year-old faith, making him one of only about 100 priests in North America, and the first in Denver.
“Besides my Creator, I’ve had many mentors and practically all of them are here today,” said Engineer before about 40 well-wishers gathered at the Church of Religious Science, 1420 Ogden St. The two faiths share worship space and a similar philosophy of the importance of the mind in defining human existence.
The Persia-born prophet Zoroaster broke from the worship of many gods to found what believers say is the first monotheistic faith. They also believe the most priceless gift the Supreme Being gave to humanity was the mind.
Even by 5-millennia-old Zoroastrian standards, Sunday came just in the nick of time.
That’s because one of the world’s most ancient faiths is also one of the world’s fastest-dwindling, from millions of adherents a millennia ago to about 250,000 today. That’s thanks to rules that say only Persians may belong, and that its priests must come from a certain family line.
Visiting priest Jehan Bagli, of Toronto, is changing that. The retired research chemist has begun ordaining men like Engineer, whose family hails from generations of Zoroastrians in India, though not of the priestly line. Bagli also wants to open up Zoroastrianism to non-Persians.
“He’s not breaking tradition but moving us forward into the 21st century,” Engineer said.
Bagli concedes his “innovation” is controversial and not accepted by everyone in the faith, including some in Colorado’s 50- to 75-member community.
He argues, however, that Zoroastrianism was more relaxed until Islam pushed it out of its native Persia 1,200 years ago. To survive undiluted in its exile in India, the faith developed ultra-strict rules that no longer apply in today’s well-traveled world, Bagli said.
In a ceremony marked by a flickering fire, ancient Persian chants and the fragrance of sandalwood, Engineer, who’s lived in Denver for 38 years but originally was from Bombay, attained the priestly goal he’s worked toward for five years.
Local Zoroastrians have had to pay heavy travel expenses so a priest could come from San Francisco or Chicago to preside over four-day weddings or to say the special prayers for the dead.
Now, their own priest is as close as Littleton.