Zoroastrians in Iran

In Decline

Next to Judaism, Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions and it was the state religion in the Persian Empire long before the Muslim conquest. Today, however, the faith ekes out a shadowy existence. Arian Fariborz reports

Zoroastrian priest in fire temple of Pir-e Sabz in Chak-Chak (photo: dpa)
Fire plays a central role in the Zoroastrian faith

​​The teachings of Zoroaster, first spread almost two millennia before the birth of Christ, experienced their highpoint under the Sassanids, the last pre-Islamic Persian dynasty, before finally fading into significance after the Muslim conquest of Iran in the 7th century.

After centuries of suppression and the exodus of many Zoroastrians, the number of believers has sunk dramatically in Iran – especially since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Mehraban Firouzgary, a priest of Tehran's Zoroastrian community, is troubled by the feeling of belonging to a religion threatened with extinction. This is especially the case whenever he holds a religious service in the historic centre of the teeming metropolis. He sees the rows of faithful steadily thinning and increasingly fewer young faces in the small temple where he preaches.

An aging religious community

There are various reasons for this. For one thing, the living conditions of many believers of this ancient Persian religion have become considerably worse since the overthrow of the Shah and the 1997 Islamic Revolution. Many young Zoroastrians, in particular, react to the increasingly bleak career opportunities in the autocratic Islamic theocracy by simply turning their backs on the country.

According to estimates, the number of Zoroastrians in Iran has decreased from 60,000 in the late 1970s to 30,000 today. Most adherents now live in the Diaspora. Bombay, above all, has developed into a pivotal hub for the exiled Iranian community.

'Avesta' books - the Holy Scripture of the Zoroastrians (photo: Arian Fariborz/DW)
One of the world's oldest religions – Zoroastrianism

​​Yet, says Mehraban Firouzgary, there are additional factors responsible for the loss of community members. "Many Zoroastrians have emigrated, but we are also a dwindling community because nowadays the younger generation in Iran marry later and have fewer children," he explains.

"We have therefore become an aging community." Although this dilemma is frequently discussed in the community, not much can be done, as members of the faith are scattered all over the world.

"Our resources are extremely limited – even when it comes to disseminating our faith." In addition, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that so many marriages are taking place outside of the Zoroastrian community, says Firouzgary. Today, a number of Zoroastrians have Muslim spouses or have themselves converted to Islam.

Second-class citizens

Similar to Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians were granted protective status under Islam on account of their holy scripture, the Avestsa, and are therefore safeguarded against discrimination on account of their religious beliefs. This is also enshrined in Article 12 of the Iranian constitution.

Zoroastrian parish hall in Teheran (photo: Arian Fariborz/DW)
The practice of Zoroastrianism is severely restricted in Iran

​​The reality, however, is quite different. As non-Muslims, Zoroastrians are subject to numerous disadvantages in the workplace. It is almost impossible for them to get a job in the public sector and they are rarely admitted to university.

Likewise, they are not permitted to hold high government positions, are excluded from serving in the police, and are not allowed to become teachers. Because of their dhimmi, or protected status under Islam, they have to pay a poll tax to the Islamic state. With the limits which are placed on the practice of their religion, they find themselves second-class citizens in the Islamic republic.

"Non-Muslims are only allowed to conduct their religious rituals at certain locations specified by the state," says Mehraban Firouzgary. "Of course we can move freely in our private space, but we can't, for example, rent a room at a university to practice our religion there." In addition, Zoroastrians are not permitted to set up any new fire temples.

Strict limits on the practice of their religion

In modern Zoroastrianism, great significance is given to properly performed rituals and worship in the presence of fire – a symbol of the purity of their god Ahura Mazda – in the fire temple, the Ateshkadeh. The religious practice of fire worship, of which the majority Muslim population is suspicious, is not allowed to be conducted in public.

The ruins of a fire temple near Yazd (photo: dpa)
The ruins of a fire temple near Yazd, where Zoroastrians conducted funerals until 1970

​​Even Zoroastrian celebrations of the Iranian New Year festival, the Nowruz, which are regularly held in the Chak-Chak temple facilities in the central Iranian city of Yazd, are subject to strict state control. It therefore comes as no surprise that in Iran, not only religious activity, but also dialogue with other faiths only takes place within very narrow limits.

Such dialogue is conducted only at the official level and is invariably initiated by the government side, reports Firouzgary. Former President Mohammad Khatami, regarded as a liberal, set a positive example by constantly supporting interreligious dialogue as well as dialogue among various social groups.

Yet, in the authoritarian climate of the Ahmadinejad era, even this restricted dialogue has long since been silenced.

Arian Fariborz

© Qantara.de 2009

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