NEW YORK ( Associated Press) – Among the world’s contemporary religions, Zoroastrianism, founded more than 3,000 years ago, is one of the oldest and most historically influential. Although its fans maintain vibrant communities on four continents, they acknowledge that their numbers are alarmingly small – perhaps 125,000 worldwide.
As of Friday, approximately 1,200 participants from 16 countries will be judging the prospects of their faith at the four-day World Zoroastrian Congress in New York City, 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, as Zoroastrians do not try to convert outsiders and – in many cases – do not view the children of mixed marriages as members of the faith. Yet there is also reason for optimism.
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“Have we ever been in a time like this?” wonders Arzan Sam Wadia, a Mumbai-born, New York-based architect who co-chairs Congress.
“Should we all give up hope and give up – ‘We can do nothing, let’s just die peacefully’ – or do we have hope for the future?” he told The Associated Press.
Here is some basic information about the faith:
Zoroastrianism, founded more than 3,000 years ago, is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in existence, advancing Christianity and Islam by many centuries. However, details of its origin are inaccurate.
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.
Beware of persecution Many Zoroastrians left for destinations in western India, especially Mumbai and Gujarat. India’s Zoroastrian population – known as Parsis – is larger than that of any other country, although the numbers there are declining as they increase in North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
At its core, Zoroastrianism emphasizes a never-ending battle between good and evil – a battle between the religion’s God, Ahura Mazda, and an evil spirit, Ahriman. Believers have the freedom to make good or bad choices; they were admonished by Zoroaster to think good thoughts, say good words, and do good deeds.
Scholars say these principles and other aspects of Zoroastrianism have had a significant impact on other religions, especially Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.
“You have these ideas that fundamentally shaped Western society,” said Jamsheed Choksy, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. “To fight the good fight, a goal of existence to do good, to make the world flourish, to work together, to respect and love one another … everything that goes back to Zarathustra.”
Traditional temples house a sacred fire that is meant to burn constantly. Another old custom: raised, circular structures known as Towers of Silence, where corpses were placed to decompose rather than be buried.
The Nowruz holiday, which includes ancient Zoroastrian traditions and marks the Persian New Year, remains a major event on the Iranian calendar. It is widely celebrated, on or around March 21, in other regions that were once part of the Persian Empire.
For Zoroastrians who left Iran and settled in India or eventually in more remote regions, their communities became known for producing entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Getting rich is encouraged within the faith, but with the proviso that wealth should be 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 world’s largest multinational conglomerates.
Another thriving conglomerate, the Wadia Group, was founded in 1736 by Parsi shipbuilder Lovji Wadia. The company has built numerous warships for Britain; his holdings today include a fashion magazine, a cricket team and manufacturers of textiles and cookies.
However, the most famous Parsi of modern times was not an entrepreneur or industrialist: Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer of the rock group Queen, was born in 1946 as Farrokh Bulsara as parents of Gujarat who lived in Zanzibar.
The possibility of further shrinkage of the global Zoroastrian community will be very much on the minds of the participants in the New York Congress.
Several sessions will focus on Zoroastrians in their 20s and 30s. In describing the event, organizers promised that participants would get away “assured that the fate of the faith is safe in the hands of passionate and visionary young Zoroastrians.”
Other topics on the agenda include entrepreneurship, interfaith cooperation and the role of women.
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Wadia, the congressional co-chair, unrelated to the family behind the Wadia group, has taken leading roles in two separate initiatives aimed at strengthening the religious outlook.
One of these is a global survey conducted by SOAS University of London aimed at shedding light on factors that promote or inhibit Zoroastrianism’s growth and vitality.
Wadia is also program director of Zoroastrian Return To Roots, which arranges trips to India for young Zoroastrians who want to learn more about their religion’s history and culture.
Wadia is convinced that the faith will survive, but perhaps while undergoing major changes. In North America, for example, he believes that adherence to specific cultural traditions can be diminished, even if Zoroastrians maintain a basic set of spiritual guidelines.
SOAS University’s Almut Hintze, a professor of Zoroastrianism, described the world community as “microscopically small” and was concerned about the decline of Parsis in India.
“However, Zoroastrians are doing well in the global diaspora,” she said in an email. “It is quite possible that numbers will stabilize, although secularisation and marriage laws pose threats.”
Choksy, the Indiana University professor, 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, higher than the latest figure for Iran.
“North America is where there is hope,” Choksy said. “This is partly due to immigration, but also the communities have more children, they feel more stable. It’s the bright light. “
Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the Associated Press’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. The Associated Press is solely responsible for this content.