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Bridging the religious divide

July 6, 2002

BY CATHLEEN FALSANI RELIGION REPORTER

The Zoroastrian religion is 3,500 years old--older than Christianity and Islam--but few people know what it is, or know any Zoroastrians for that matter.

There are about 700 Zarathushtis, as Zoroastrians prefer to be called, in the Chicago area, and this weekend they are hosting the annual North American Congress of Zoroastrians at the Hyatt Regency downtown.

Once the state religion of ancient Persia--now Iran--which is 99 percent Muslim, Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion that worships Ahura Mazda, which literally means "Wise Lord." There are about 275,000 Zarathushtis worldwide, with the greatest populations in Iran and India. About 25,000 live in North America.

Friday afternoon, the North American Zarathushtis took an unprecedented step in their history here and hosted an interfaith dialogue, with Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant speakers.

"Our religion teaches us tolerance for all religions, even if we may disagree with them," said Maneck Bhujwala of San Jose, Calif., who works with interreligious groups at Stanford University. "Perceived religious differences are being exploited by different vested groups to foment hatred."

Ervid Jehan Bagli, a Zoroastrian priest from Canada, said Zoroastrians have long been able to live peaceably with other religious groups because their religion emphasizes living in harmony with nature and other human beings. He said the post-Sept. 11 climate makes interreligious dialogue not an option, but a necessity.

"The aftermath of Sept. 11's catastrophe in New York clearly demonstrated beyond all doubt that barriers of religion and faith that separate the diverse melts down in face of the grief of human disaster," Bagli said. "The challenge we face is to present the same model in a time of peace."

During their four-day congress, which began Thursday, more than 500 Zoroastrians from across North America will discuss the challenges facing their tiny minority religious community, how to bring up their children in a pluralistic society, and how to educate their neighbors about their religion.

The goal, organizers of the event said, is not to convert anyone to the Zarathushti faith tradition, but to foster respect among America's diverse religious groups.

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