In New Zealand Zoroastrians try to beat extinction


May 15, 2015

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World youth congress in Auckland in December is a bid to get followers to marry within the faith, writes Lincoln Tan.

One of the world’s oldest religions is facing extinction, and will be fighting for its survival in Auckland.

Zoroastrianism, founded about 3500 years ago and considered to be among the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, has a tiny number of followers here.

But that number is also shrinking, dropping from 1071 in 2006 to just 972 at the last Census.


From left, Zoroastrians Tinaz Karbhari with Sanaya Master and Kainaz Jasmasbnejad. Photo / Brett Phibbs

In India, where most Zoroastrians live, the numbers have halved since 1940 to about 61,000.

They believe in one god, Ahura Mazda, and follow the teachings of ancient Prophet Zoroaster. They worship in fire temples, believing fire to be a symbol of God’s purity.

The religion has its roots in Persia and adherents are also known as Parsis.

The community will be organising a world youth congress in December, to be held in Auckland, in a bid to get followers to marry within the faith.

Professor Edwina Pio, an AUT University professor of diversity, said the number of Zoroastrians was dropping because people could not be converted to the faith.

“If a Parsi woman marries a non-Parsi man, her children are not considered Parsi, thus reducing the number of potential Parsis globally,” she said.

A child would be accepted as a Zoroastrian if a Parsi man married a non-Parsi woman.

Professor Pio, who researched Zoroastrians for her book Work and Worship, said they were well received in New Zealand.

“Due to their command of the English language, appearance, light-coloured skin, mode of dressing … they have a high acceptance and many happy experiences in New Zealand,” she said.

“However, their names are reminiscent of Iran and thus a number of people in New Zealand think they are Muslim and thus may be equated with negative aspects linked to Islam.”

Massey University religion expert Peter Lineham said because of the restrictions imposed by the religion, he did not see the faith growing in New Zealand.

“The literature suggests that rules against proselytising and recognising inter-faith marriages means that many who marry out of the faith get cast out,” he said.

In India, Zoroastrians dispose of their dead by laying bodies out for vultures to consume.

It is their belief that fire and earth are sacred, and would be contaminated by corpses if dead bodies were buried or cremated.

Tinaz Karbhari, 25, chairwoman of the Sixth World Zoroastrian Youth Congress, said the event would present a platform to discuss the threat to their existence.

“It is quite a sad thing that our numbers are dropping, but we realise that it is now up to youths like us to keep it going,” she said.

Ms Karbhari said another key objective of the congress was to pair up young Parsi couples.

“Events like these indirectly encourage youth to marry within the faith as those who attend need to be Zoroastrian,” said Ms Karbhari.

“For many individuals, these congresses are where they find their life-long spouse who happens to live on the other side of the world.”

Schemes overseas to pair young Zoroastrian couples include speed-dating, Parsi pin-up calendars and other social events.

Other less known faiths have had mixed fortunes since 2006. Animism, which believes that all living things such as rivers and mountains have a soul, saw an increase in following to 243 people.

Others on the rise include Rastafarianism, whose believers worship a 20th century Ethiopian emperor and smoke cannabis for its spiritual qualities, and Hauhau, a 19th-century Maori movement that follows prophet Te Ua Haumene.

But the number of Satan worshippers and followers of Wiccan, a modern pagan witchcraft religion, declined.

Religion narrows the dating pool

Like many single young women her age, 24-year-old Sanaya Master is looking for a life partner.

But her search is made that much more difficult because the rules of her Zoroastrian religion mean she cannot date people outside of her faith.

“I have never dated someone who is not a Zoroastrian, because it’s just something we don’t do,” said Miss Master, a marketing assistant.

If she married someone who was not of the faith, her children would not be considered Zoroastrian and would not be allowed into the temple. To be a Zoroastrian, or a Parsi, one has to be born into the faith.

“The rules are a little patriarchal, I know, but I still feel that it is a privilege for me to be born into the religion,” Miss Master said.

“I guess because our community is so small in New Zealand, we all tend to hang out together, so I do get to meet other Parsi guys.”

She felt it was harder for women to find a mate because Parsi men could marry a non-Zoroastrian and remain part of the community.

Miss Master said she was looking forward to the World Zoroastrian Youth Congress, where she hopes to expand her network of Parsi friends.

There are fewer than 980 Zoroastrians in New Zealand and about 200 are between the ages of 15 and 29.

Kainaz Jasmasbnejad, 30, a childhood education manager, is married to a Zoroastrian from Iran.

The mother-of-two said she considered passing the ancient practices of the faith to her children as her most important role as a mother.

“It is very important that I pass on to my children our beliefs, and make sure they can follow it through their lives,” she said.

“We bring them to pray [at the temple] every Sunday, it’s a pattern, they need to learn about our religion.”

A Victoria University 2012 report, The Parsi Dilemma: A NZ perspective, found most were fairly positive and confident the Parsi identity would survive in New Zealand, in India and worldwide.

The number of people In New Zealand affiliated with a Christian religion fell from 55.6 per cent of the population in 2006 to 48.9 per cent at the last Census. Photo / File

‘It’s all about me’ – individualism blamed for drop in believers

The Catholic Church says the “cult of individualism” has resulted in the decline of Christian believers in New Zealand.

The number of people affiliated with a Christian religion fell from 55.6 per cent of the population in 2006 to 48.9 per cent at the last Census.

Catholicism was now the largest denomination, with 492,105 adherents, overtaking Anglicans in 2013.

“Our society has become increasingly secular along with the cult of individualism; ‘it’s all about me’,” said Catholic Church spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer.

“I believe it’s true to say that the faith of today’s Catholics is born from personal conviction rather than, [as] in the past, from family norms, expectations and pressures.”

The overall proportion of Catholic Asians had risen from 11.5 per cent to 13 per cent.

One in eight people affiliated with the Catholic faith, or 61,242, were Asian. One in 10 belonged to a Pacific ethnic group.

“Those of us who are Catholic, regardless of our ethnicity, share a common faith and its basic tenets and worship, even though sometimes with a somewhat different way of expressing it,” Ms Freer said.

She said it was simplistic to suggest a correlation between wealth and a decline in religious belief.

A former St Patrick’s Cathedral parishioner, who left the Catholic Church to become a born again Christian, said churches should change their message to target the rich.

But Dr Nick Thompson, lecturer in theology at the University of Auckland, believed it was a waste of time for a church to focus its energies on being up to date.

“Western Christianity has been trying to update itself in one way or another since the 19th century … the problem is that this strategy doesn’t seem to have worked in the global West,” he said.

“The trendy vicar who tried to get down with the kids in the 1960s has now become a figure of fun. Most of the radical thinkers in the mainstream churches are now receiving pensions.”

Dr Thompson said even the Pentecostal churches that deliberately used contemporary forms of worship and communication had very high turnovers.

“This means that their growth needs to be treated with a certain amount of scepticism.”

Massey University religion expert Peter Lineham said there was a trend for Pentecostal and Catholic churches and schools to appeal to the poor as a route upwards.

“For Christianity’s future, I am sure that the Catholics and Pentecostals are giving it a significant boost – but as a minority religion.”