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December 16, 2016

An Old Faith in the New World – Zoroastrianism in the United States

 zamwi-templeIranian Americans are one of the most spiritually diverse diaspora groups in the United States due to their wide range of minority religions. Although most are Shia Muslims, they are still much more diverse religiously than Iranians in Iran. An MIT poll of Iranian Americans in 2005 found that half of them identified as Muslim, while the CIA World Factbook estimates that 95% of Iranians in Iran do. In addition to Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and secularists, members of ancient Iranian religions have also found a home in the United States. Of these, perhaps the most interesting example is Zoroastrianism.
Known as Zarathustrianism in Avestan, it started 3,500 years ago with its founder Zarathustra, or Zoroaster. Zoroaster stands out among many prophets for teaching that humans are innately free, and that religion should guide them to the Truth rather than compel them to it. He also stressed that “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds” are the path to salvation, not dogmatic adherence to particular tenets. Despite avoiding proselytization, Zoroastrianism became an official religion of the classical Persian Empire from Anatolia to the Indus River. At the same time, its promotion of monotheism influenced early Judaism, and by extension Christianity and Islam, among other faiths.
Although it had millions of followers in its heyday, Zoroastrianism has declined in recent history. Many Zoroastrians fled to undivided India (which today comprises of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) after Persia’s conquest by Arabs in the 7th Century; the descendants of which are known as Parsis. As of 2012, Iran had an estimated 15-25,000 Zoroastrians, while India had 61,000. By accidents of history and politics, however, America has seen a steady increase in the population to 15,000 Zoroastrians. Many left Iran during the 1979 Revolution; combined with others from India and Pakistan who came for educational and economic opportunities, the U.S. now has the third largest Zoroastrian population in the world.
Nevertheless, Zoroastrianism faces many challenges to its survival in the 21st century. While the US community grew by 33 percent from 2004 to 2012, India’s shrunk by 12 percent (largely a feature of lower birth rates), creating a net global decline in population. This has started a debate among North America’s Zoroastrians about whether to initiate non-Zoroastrian spouses from mixed households. “Why would a child want to initiate into a religion that rejects the non-Zoroastrian parent?” one DC-based Zoroastrian asked rhetorically. Overall, opposition to conversion tends to come from Parsis, who are concerned it could lead to assimilation of Zoroastrians into larger faiths and cultures given their small numbers. One anonymous Parsi said he wanted greater acceptance of mixed families but was cautious about overt conversion from the general population: “Although Zoroastrianism’s message is universal, its rituals and culture are specific to existing traditions and an understanding of communal identity.”
Another challenge is Zoroastrianism’s emphasis on independence and freedom of choice. Among Zoroastrians, worship can occur at a temple or at home. In North America, priests are strictly volunteers who give their time willingly. The priest for Washington’s community, Behram M. Panthaki, elaborated that since the religion enjoins freedom of choice he might give a sermon or an explanation of the prayers after a ceremony, but he would refrain from pontificating. Although there are civic Zoroastrian groups like the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America, there are no central bodies or leaders like a Pope dictating doctrine. As a result, Parsi and Iranian Zoroastrian communities have different norms for who is Zoroastrian, while priests use different liturgical languages and calendars depending on their background and training.
Despite these challenges, Zenobia Panthaki remained optimistic about the future of her faith. She often found that Zoroastrians become more concerned about preserving their culture as they get older. In addition, the use of the internet to share, translate, and preserve Zoroastrian religious texts and historical records has also helped. She predicted that this would help spread its ideas and tenets to more people, making it “more logical, and less ritualistic.”
Meanwhile, North America’s Zoroastrians are increasingly coming together. In 2014, after years of planning, and a munificent donation by an Iranian Zoroastrian family, the first DC Metro area center opened in Boyds, Maryland, bringing together Parsi and Iranian Zoroastrians. Unity has helped them advocate for each other, and to coordinate their religious and social relations. Mr. Kersi Shroff, a past-president of the local association, formed in 1979, told how the group had originally sought planning permission to establish a center in Fairfax, Virginia, but encountered resistance. “The county government imposed many conditions for building the temple, and the neighbors thought we were a cult and even questioned the source of our financing. Seeing us, they thought ‘They’re Muslims!’” In Boyds, by contrast, the neighbors were more welcoming, having read about the faith and its history and the Zoroastrians themselves began engaging more with the local church and the Boyds civic community.
At least as importantly, the Boyds center seeks to not merely revive Zoroastrianism but adapt it to modern challenges and culture. One theme touched on by all the congregants was the sense of continuity Zoroastrianism provided despite all the other challenges they faced. Mina Aidun, an instructor for the temple, became inspired to promote Zoroastrianism after leaving Iran with her family in 1978. Even as she had to leave her country and rebuild in a new one, she knew that “Zoroastrianism’s universalism does not change with time.” One member of the community emphasized the ways in which Zoroastrianism can complement modern culture. He initiated to Zoroastrianism in his youth to rediscover his roots: “For me, conversion was not a rejection of my previous faith, but a return to Zoroastrianism.”

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