NEW YORK — (AP) — Of the world’s current religions, Zoroastrianism, founded more than 3,000 years ago, is one of the oldest and most historically influential. Yet even though its adherents maintain vibrant communities on four continents, they recognize that their numbers are staggeringly small – perhaps 125,000 worldwide.
Starting Friday, about 1,200 attendees from 16 countries will assess the outlook for their faith at the four-day World Zoroastrian Congress in New York, the first to be held in the United States since 2000.
The agenda reflects a keen awareness of the challenges facing their religion. Prospects for growth are limited, since Zoroastrians do not seek to convert foreigners and – in many cases – do not consider children of intermarriage as members of the faith. Yet there are also reasons for optimism.
“Have we ever lived through a time like this? wondered Arzan Sam Wadia, a Mumbai-born, New York-based architect who serves as co-chair of the congress.
“Should we all despair and give up – ‘We can’t do anything, just die in peace’ – or do we have hope for the future? he told The Associated Press.
Here is some basic information about faith:
Founded over 3,000 years ago, Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions still in existence, predating Christianity and Islam by centuries. The details of its origin, however, are imprecise.
The prophet Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, is revered as the founder of the faith, which became dominant in Persia before Arab Muslims conquered the region in the 7th century.
Suspicious of persecution, many Zoroastrians left for destinations in western India, including Mumbai and Gujarat. India’s Zoroastrian population – known as the Parsis – is larger than that of any other country, although numbers there are falling as they rise in North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
At its core, Zoroastrianism emphasizes an endless battle between good and evil – a contest between the religion’s god, Ahura Mazda, and an evil spirit, Ahriman. Believers have the freedom to make good or bad choices; they were urged by Zoroaster to think good thoughts, speak good words, and do good deeds.
Scholars say these principles and other aspects of Zoroastrianism have had a significant influence on other religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.
“You have these ideas that have fundamentally shaped Western society,” said Jamsheed Choksy, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University. “Fighting the good fight, a purpose to exist to do good, to make the world flourish, to work together, to respect and love each other… all of this goes back to Zarathustra.
Traditional temples house a sacred fire that is meant to burn forever. Another ancient custom: raised circular structures known as Towers of Silence, where corpses were placed to decompose rather than be buried.
The Nowruz holiday, which incorporates ancient Zoroastrian traditions and marks the Persian New Year, remains a major event in the Iranian calendar. It is widely celebrated, on or around March 21, in other regions that were once part of the Persian Empire.
For the Zoroastrians who left Iran and settled in India or eventually in more remote areas, their communities became renowned for producing entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Getting rich was encouraged in the faith, but on the condition that the riches were used to help others.
Jamsetji Tata, born in India in 1839, became one of the most prominent industrialists and philanthropists of the 19th century, and the Tata Group he founded is one of the largest multinational conglomerates in the world.
Another successful conglomerate, the Wadia Group, was founded by Parsi shipbuilder Lovji Wadia in 1736. The company built dozens of warships for Britain; its holdings today include a fashion magazine, a cricket team and manufacturers of textiles and biscuits.
However, the most famous Parsee of modern times was neither an entrepreneur nor an industrialist: Freddie Mercury, the legendary singer of the rock group Queen, was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 to parents from Gujarat who lived in Zanzibar.
The possibility of a further shrinking of the global Zoroastrian community will be very much on the minds of those attending the New York convention.
Several sessions will focus on Zoroastrians in their 20s and 30s. In describing the gathering, organizers promised that attendees would leave “reassured that the fate of the faith is in the hands of young, passionate and visionary Zoroastrians.”
Other topics on the agenda include entrepreneurship, interreligious collaboration and the role of women.
Wadia, the co-chair of the congress, who is not related to the family behind the Wadia group, has leading roles in two separate initiatives aimed at strengthening the religion’s outlook.
One is a global survey conducted by SOAS University of London which aims to shed light on the factors that promote or inhibit the growth and vitality of Zoroastrianism.
Wadia is also the director of the Zoroastrian Return To Roots program, which organizes trips to India for young Zoroastrians who want to learn more about the history and culture of their religion.
Wadia is convinced that the faith will survive, but perhaps undergoing major changes. In North America, for example, he thinks adherence to specific cultural traditions may be declining, even if Zoroastrians maintain a basic set of spiritual guidelines.
Almut Hintze of SOAS University, a professor of Zoroastrianism, described the global community as “microscopically small” and worries about the decline of Parsis in India.
“However, Zoroastrians are doing well in the global diaspora,” she said via email. “The numbers may well be stabilizing, although secularization and marriage laws pose threats.”
Choksy, a professor at Indiana University, sees North America as the most promising region for growth. He estimates that the United States and Canada are now home to more than 30,000 Zoroastrians, a figure higher than the latest figure for Iran.
“North America is where there is hope,” Choksy said. “It’s partly due to immigration, but also the communities have more children, they feel more stable. It is bright light.
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