1 of oldest religions, 1 of smallest
Followers of Zoroastrianism, founded 2 centuries before Christianity, meet
in Chicago to discuss how best to keep their faith in the futureBy Julia
Tribune religion reporter
July 8, 2002
Mazda Antia, a 27-year-old attorney, is used to
people asking if he's named after a car.
"No, the God of the
Zoroastrians," he tells them.
you're from Jamaica," they say.
"I'm not Rastafarian," he responds. "I'm
Young Zoroastrians throughout the country often have a lot
of explaining to do, Antia said at the North American Zoroastrian Congress, held
Thursday through Sunday in Chicago. One of the oldest monotheistic faiths,
Zoroastrianism is also among the smallest, with an estimated 200,000 members
worldwide, 20,000 of whom live in the United States and 700 of whom reside in
the Chicago area.
Few people in this country have heard of their code of
ethics, their prayers or fire ceremonies. Fewer know what it's like to be a
young Zoroastrian living in the United States.
For four days at the
conference, the children of Indian and Iranian immigrants talked about the
challenge of preserving their ancient tradition. Is it enough to be born
Zoroastrian or do they need to perform the rituals? Is intermarriage a sin or
can they marry Christians or Jews without diluting the faith? And how can they
best learn the central tenets of their tradition--and explain it to Americans
who can't even pronounce it?
"Once our parents are gone, are we going to
keep the traditions alive and know what they mean?" said Negin Sharyari, 20, a
student at the University of California at Irvine.
founded about 1800 B.C. in Persia by the prophet Zarathushtra. The religion
flourished through the rise and fall of many civilizations and became the state
religion of the Great Persian Empire.
After the Muslim invasion of Persia
in 652 A.D., many Zoroastrians fled to India, where they became known as the
Parsees. The first Zoroastrians from India migrated to the United States in the
The religion teaches of one supreme God, Ahura Mazda ("Wise Lord")
and stresses that people are granted freedom of choice and are responsible for
their actions. The prophet encouraged his followers to develop the values of
righteousness, service and devotion to attain perfection and immortality. Each
individual is responsible for improving the lot of humanity rather than relying
on an omnipotent God.
"God needs us as much as we need God,"
Zoroastrians are encouraged to pray five times a day, to live
in harmony with nature and to venerate all light and fire as symbols of God's
creation and goodness. Their God is not to be feared but to be known as a friend
and ally who can be served through a system of rational ethical norms rather
than blind faith. Asceticism and celibacy are rejected for Zoroastrians,
Antia, who grew up going to the Zoroastrian
Association of Chicago's center in Hinsdale--one of two dozen in the United
States--is a priest who wears white robes and performs initiations, marriages
and funerals for the community in the presence of an eternal flame.
the age of 12, he told his father that he wanted to be a priest, so he went to
India to participate in a 30-day ceremony.
When he returned, a public
school teacher said he didn't understand how a boy so young could be a priest.
"But for me it was very natural," he said. "This is what I was." It was just as
natural to pursue a career in law, said Antia, who works as a law clerk for a
federal judge in Ft. Lauderdale.
Antia hopes to encourage other young
people to find a way to integrate their religious and secular lives, to learn
the Zoroastrian philosophy and to teach it to others. "It's not just a matter of
ritual," he said. "We need to know the message that impacts your daily life
Roshni Jamsetjee, 14, wears a daily reminder of the message.
Under her Old Navy T-shirt, she wears a sudreh: a thin muslin garment with a
pocket in the center to hold one's good deeds. That's in keeping with the
religion's motto: "Good Thoughts. Good Words. Good Deeds."
sudreh in a school where everyone tries to be the same "means I'm proud of my
religion," she said.
Her friend Farrah Siganporia, 14, agreed: "We're not
embarrassed of being different."
Darius Dadabhoy, a 28-year-old banker
from Chicago, said that in any religious tradition, pride in one's culture does
not always translate into understanding the rituals, such as the initiation
ceremony in India he underwent at age 12.
He remembers sitting in a
bathtub and wondering why someone had cracked an egg over his head--which turned
out to be a Hindu tradition, not Zoroastrian. And he had no idea when he sipped
consecrated bull's urine that it was part of a ancient Zoroastrian ritual of
purification--since replaced by pomegranate juice in North America.
youth session Thursday at the conference addressed issues of culture and
identity. The audience applauded at statements supporting the practice of
conversion, which is rejected in North America by some Zoroastrians. The young
people also voiced enthusiasm for the possibility of intermarriage, a common
occurrence among North American Zoroastrians, although Sharyari said many
parents worry that intermarriage will dilute the faith.
the importance of such gatherings as the conference and summer camps to educate
Zoroastrian youth. Still, many people attending the conference said they came
for the solidarity.
It's about familiarity, said Dadabhoy: "You see 500
people who kind of look like you."
Copyright © 2002, Chicago
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