Modern Zoroastrians Keep Dwindling
by Lewis Loflin
"We were once at least 40, 50 million - can you imagine?" said Mr. Antia, senior Zoroastrian priest at the fire temple here in suburban Chicago. "At one point we had reached the pinnacle of glory of the Persian Empire and had a beautiful religious philosophy that governed the Persian kings. Where are we now? Completely wiped out. It pains me to say, in 100 years we won't have many Zoroastrians."
Zoroastrians are fighting the extinction of their faith, a monotheistic religion that most scholars say is at least 3,000 years old. Zoroastrianism predates Christianity and Islam, and many historians say it influenced those faiths and cross-fertilized Judaism as well, with its doctrines of one God, a dualistic universe of good and evil and a final day of judgment.
While Zoroastrians once dominated an area stretching from what is now Syria to India and Russia, their global population has dwindled to 190,000 at most, and perhaps as few as 124,000, according to a survey in 2004 by Fezana Journal. There is controversy with the numbers in Iran, some claim there's still 2 million. (Not Likely)
In other countries where they form a successful professional class "they assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures. And since the faith encourages opportunities for women, many Zoroastrian women are working professionals who, like many other professional women, have few children or none."
"Despite their shrinking numbers, Zoroastrians - who follow the Prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek) - are divided over whether to accept intermarried families and converts and what defines a Zoroastrian. An effort to create a global organizing body fell apart two years ago after some priests accused the organizers of embracing "fake converts" and diluting traditions." There's good reason to believe Judaism got its prohibition against intermarriage from the Zoroastrians.
About 11,000 Zoroastrians live in the United States, 6,000 in Canada, 5,000 in England, 2,700 in Australia and 2,200 in the Persian Gulf nations, according to the Fezana Journal survey. They left India and Iran. This is the second major exodus in Zoroastrian history. In Iran, after Muslims rose to power in the seventh century AD the Zoroastrian population was decimated by massacres, persecution and conversions to Islam.
Seven boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees fled Iran and landed on the coast of India in 936. Their descendants, known as Parsis, built Bombay into the world capital of Zoroastrianism.
The Zoroastrian magazine Parsiana publishes charts each month tracking births, deaths and marriages. Leaders fret over the reports from Mumbai, where deaths outnumber births six to one.
The intermarriage rate there has risen to about one in three. The picture in North America is more hopeful: about 1.5 births for one death. But the intermarriage rate in North America is now nearly 50 percent. (Same problems for Jews, but that is the result of a culture of freedom.)
The very tenets of Zoroastrianism could be feeding its demise, many adherents said in interviews. Zoroastrians believe in free will, so in matters of religion they do not believe in compulsion.
They do not proselytize. They can pray at home instead of going to a temple. While there are priests, there is no hierarchy to set policy. And their basic doctrine is a universal ethical precept: "good thoughts, good words, good deeds."
Because of the high intermarriage rate, some Zoroastrian priests refuse to accept converts or to perform initiation ceremonies for adopted children or the children of intermarried couples, especially when the father is not Zoroastrian. The ban on these practices is far stronger in India and Iran than in North America.
Extract New York Times September 6, 2006
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