Zoroastrian faith flourishing in Illinois


December 9, 2008

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Despite declining numbers of Zoroastrians worldwide, immigrants from India and Iran help the religion grow in Chicago area

The ancient faith of Zoroastrianism is in decline worldwide, its numbers dwindling after centuries of conquest, persecution and diaspora.

But it’s a different story in Illinois, where Immigration from two countries—Iran and India—has led to a surge in numbers in recent decades.

The community here has grown from almost nothing to 600 in 50 years, with another 200 from nearby states visiting to participate in worship at the Zoroastrian Center of Chicago in west suburban Burr Ridge, its leaders said.

But although most immigrant communities find common bonds in the traditions of a shared homeland, Zoroastrians have found unity in their worship, despite their separate histories.

Founded by the prophet Zoroaster in what probably was about 1400 B.C., Zoroastrianism teaches that God, the good Ahura Mazda, is opposed by the evil Angra Mainyu, but that good will ultimately vanquish its foe.

Beginning in 549 B.C., the belief flourished for more than 1,000 years as the state religion of three empires centered in what is now Iran, and scholars cite its importance in influencing three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

There are 125,000 to 200,000 Zoroastrians worldwide, most of them in Iran and India, where they fled persecution in Islamic Iran and during the Mongol invasions. But since the 1950s, the immigrant streams of Zoroastrianism have been reuniting in the United States, Australia, Canada and other parts of the West.

Those of Iranian heritage make up about 20 percent of the temple in Burr Ridge, and the rest are from India.

“So [we] now have a Western diaspora, and that diaspora is bringing Iranians and Indians together,” said Roshan Rivetna, an Indian immigrant whose husband, Rohinton, founded the temple. “After 1,000 years of being separated, we are together.”
Despite the separate heritage and cultures, the two groups find common ground in worship. “Amazingly, the prayers and the ceremonies are intact and still the same,” said Rohinton Rivetna.Bahram Farhadieh, an Iranian immigrant and community leader, said in cities with significant Zoroastrian populations, people tend to socialize according to their ethnic background, but they find a common bond in religion. The Indian Zoroastrians, known as Parsis, tend to practice more elaborate rituals, but the beliefs are the same.

“The essence of the religion has remained the same in both cases,” he said. “We all believe in good works, good thoughts and good deeds. That is the main faith, and we are all sticking to that.”

During a recent Jashan, or thanksgiving celebration, three priests tended a ritual fire, an important Zoroastrian symbol. As Indians and Iranians sat together, the priests recalled “all the good thoughts, good words and good deeds, those here, and in any other place, those that have already been performed, and those that are yet to be performed.”

Pesi Vazifdar, a priest, said his experience as an immigrant has strengthened his faith after growing up surrounded by Zoroastrians in Mumbai, India.

“You take it for granted [in India],” he said. “You go to the temple. You pray. But after coming here, being only a minority and trying to get our children to understand the religion, most of us actually started to really learn about our faith.”


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