Ancient religion may face extinction

This article appeared in the Boston Globe. I cannot seem to find the online direct link. However, read on…

As screaming children raced around the hall in joyous play, adult workers readied food in the kitchen, while others set up chairs and tables. The holiday dinner of the Zoroastrian Association of the Greater Boston Area, held in a borrowed church basement in Arlington last month, mingled fellowship and family.

A new year naturally turns the mind to the future, especially for those looking back on a long and storied past, and Zoroastrians are peering at a horizon that they may never reach. A practice of not accepting converts has helped whittle the ranks of this ancient religion to fewer than 200,000 worldwide. Assimilation further robs the community of its distinctiveness, a fact in plain view at the dinner, where partygoers whose faith predated Jesus by a millennium nonetheless decorated an artificial Christmas tree.

“Both my boys are married outside [to] non-Zoroastrians,” said Sarosh Sukhia , a Pakistan-born Virginian who attended the party during a family visit to Boston. “They’ll keep an adherence to the name, and I’ll try to teach them the prayers.”

But they’re following the faith “in a very casual way — you might say the very American sort of way,” he said. Extinction of the religion, which some adherents speak of openly, would mean the end of a foundational faith. Zoroastrianism, following the teachings of its founding prophet, Zarathustra, pioneered, with Judaism, both monotheism and the idea of religiously based ethics. The cradle of the faith was Persia (modern Iran), where it was the state religion of the powerful empire until Zoroastrians were chased out in the sixth century by Muslim persecution and evangelization. They retreated to India, where most of their descendants, called Parsis, still live today.

Zoroastrian priests are divided between traditionalists who reject conversion, even for spouses and children of Zoroastrians, and those who see it as essential to preserving the faith. The former argue that the religion is fundamentally ethnic, ruling out non-Parsi converts. According to legend, the Zoroastrians in India promised the Hindu leadership that they would not proselytize, in exchange for a home, said Farhad D. Panthaki , a Natick engineer who is also a priest.

Viewed from Boston, which counts perhaps 200 Zoroastrians, the prospect of a depleted community looks like a mirage. The children playing at the party testified to the baby boomlet the community experienced five or six years ago. Local Zoroastrians are financially fecund as well. Hopes of building a Zoroastrian center someday have been stoked by two families’ offer to match contributions up to $500,000.

Talk of the faith’s demise is “really not a topic of conversation” in Boston, said Panthaki. “We have to do things that are in our control,” while global decline “has really very little to do with what each individual person does. It primarily happens because there are a lot of people who don’t get married [until] advanced ages,” cutting birth rates. That’s because Zoroastrians put a premium on education, and most are working professionals.

As for conversion, the truly determined can travel to California, home to a rare Zoroastrian community that is willing to initiate converts, Panthaki said.

“The mindset is so entrenched from the centuries of . . . staying within your own ethnic community, only getting married to Zarathustis” (another term for Zoroastrians), he said. “Because of the matter of practice and continuous tradition of so many years, it is completely taboo to even think of someone who’s born a non-Zarthusti to convert.”

While he understands the arguments for conversion, he believes those converts who have been accepted don’t always understand the faith fully.

That doesn’t cut it for Ali Salimi , a store owner from Framingham who is not Zoroastrian but is active in the Boston association. Salimi is not interested in an adult navjote — an initiation ritual analogous to a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah and usually performed on children and teens — but adamantly said that nothing in Zarathustra’s teachings prohibits conversions.

“Why am I hanging out with these folks?” he asked rhetorically. “Religion is not just a matter of the relationship between man and God. It’s between man and man as well.”

Zoroastrianism gives him a fulfilling sense of connection to the pre-Muslim culture of his native Iran, he said, which became important to him as he grew disillusioned with the Islamic leaders who have governed that country since the 1970s revolution. The religion’s emphasis on individual conscience and responsibility also echoes the values of democracy, which he loves.

Some Zoroastrians shrug in resignation about the future. “It’s a little bit like saying, ‘What can I do about global warming on an individual level?’ ” said Sukhia. “The conversion thing has been fought at so many different levels by so many different people. And everyone is an authority unto himself.”