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Gathering draws Zoroastrians to Chicago

Friday, July 5, 2002

By Allison Hantschel
Staff writer

More than 500 representatives of "the Switzerland of world religions" are converging on Chicago this week to discuss using faith to put out the fires of conflict instead of fanning the flames.

The annual North American Zoroastrian Congress takes place in the city for the first time in more than 20 years.

"It's an opportunity to learn within our own community what we have to offer others," said congress spokesman Jim Engineer. "This is a faith based on tolerance and understanding, and we've always been very active in interfaith work."

Zoroastrianism dates to the revelations of the prophet Zarathustra in approximately 1500 BC, and was the dominant Eastern religion until the rise of Islam.

Followers believe in one god, whom Zarathustra called Ahura Mazda, meaning wise lord. They commit themselves to Humata, Hukhta and Huvareshta, or good thoughts, good words and good deeds, and venerate light and fire as symbols of creation.

There are now about 25,000 Zoroastrians in North America and 300 Zoroastrian families in the Chicago region. The Zoroastrian Center of Chicago in Burr Ridge was founded in 1975 and coordinates most activities in the area.

For North American Zoroastrians, the conference offers an opportunity to talk about identity, Engineer said. Many Zoroastrians here are first-generation immigrants from India and Iran whose children now are trying to integrate their ancient faith and their American upbringing.

Mixed marriages between Zoroastrians and those of other faiths have raised many questions for the second generation of immigrants that the first generation didn't have to deal with, Engineer said.

"Many of (the first generation) were baby boomer-age, who came here on scholarships with little or no money and built a terrific future for themselves in America," Engineer said. "As the population dwindles in India, there's a North American population burgeoning, and people are starting to talk now about passing on the torch to their children."

An interfaith discussion with Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders today at 2 p.m. will focus on how to use faith to resolve differences peacefully during a time of religious conflict.

"We're very much like the Switzerland of world religions," Engineer said. "After Sept. 11, when the mosques in Villa Park were threatened, we were one of the first religious groups to go out and offer our support and 2,000 years ago Muslims drove us out of Iran. We don't hold any animosity to anyone."

The conference began Thursday and ends Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. For more information about the conference, visit the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Chicago Web site at www.zac-chicago.org.

Allison Hantschel may be reached at ahantschel@dailysouthtown.com or (708) 633-5998.

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