How Iran persecutes its oldest religion

Zoroastrian worshipers pray near the central Iranian city of Yazd in 2004.

Zoroastrian worshipers pray near the central Iranian city of Yazd in 2004.

By Jamsheed K. Choksy , Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian studies, senior fellow of the Center on American and Global Security, and former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Bloomington, Indiana (CNN) — As Zoroastrian funerary processions enter the graveyard overlooking the Tehran suburb of Ray, their sobriety is often shattered by the sound of explosions and gunfire. Frequently, the way forward is blocked by Islamic Revolutionary Guards conducting a combat exercise among the tombs. According to Zoroastrian custom, burial needs to take place within 24 hours, and the Revolutionary Guards will not halt their training activities there for the funerals.

This is just another sign of religious freedom fading in the Islamic Republic.

Much that is written about the Zoroastrians of Iran portrays them as a venerable and quaint religious community. But these followers of an ancient faith are not insulated from the tribulations of their country.

Zoroastrianism is named after its founder, the prophet Zarathustra — or Zoroaster, as he came to be known in the West — who preached sometime between 1800 and 1000 B.C. Zoroaster spoke of humans siding with God (called Ahura Mazda, or the Wise Lord) against the devil (called Angra Mainyu, or the Angry Spirit) and fighting for all that is right. In time, those concepts became central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So did Zoroastrian beliefs that each soul faces judgment after death before entering heaven, limbo or hell, and that all of humanity will experience resurrection, final judgment and heaven on Earth.

Ancient Persian kings like Cyrus and Darius followed their faith’s basic tenet of doing good by freeing Israelites from the Babylonian Exile and supporting construction of the Second Temple at Jerusalem. Zoroastrianism’s clergymen, or magi, are known around the world as the wise men in attendance at the nativity of Jesus. Until Arabs conquered Iran during the seventh century, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians there could practice their own devotions unhindered. Thereafter, they became minorities who were persecuted and largely converted to Islam.

When the Islamic revolution occurred in 1979, fundamentalist Shiites stormed the fire temple at Tehran. There, Zoroastrians worship in front of a blazing fire, as a symbol of God’s grace, just like Christians face a cross and Muslims turn to a qibla pointing toward Mecca. The portrait of Zoroaster was tossed down, a photograph of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was put up in its place, and the congregation was warned not to remove the image of Iran’s new leader. Only months later could the prophet’s picture be mounted upon an adjacent wall.

Their schools and classrooms began to be covered with images of Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and with verses of the Quran that denounce non-Muslims. Those who do well academically nonetheless find no openings within state-controlled universities.

When the bloody war with Iraq raged from 1980 to 1988, young Zoroastrians were involuntarily drafted for suicide missions in the Iranian army. Rejecting the Shiite mullahs’ claim that military martyrdom would lead them to a heaven full of virgins was futile. Failing to offer their lives on the battlefield could result in execution for treason.

Then in November 2005, Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, chairman of the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, disparaged Zoroastrians and other religious minorities as "sinful animals who roam the earth and engage in corruption." When the Zoroastrians’ solitary parliamentary representative protested, he was hauled before a revolutionary tribunal. There, mullahs threatened execution before sparing his life with a warning never to challenge their declarations again. A frightened community subsequently declined to re-elect him.

Over the past two years, many Muslim Iranians have begun publicly rejecting the Shiite theocracy’s intolerant ways by adopting symbols and festivals from Zoroastrianism. Those actions are denounced as causing "harm and corruption" by ayatollahs like Khamenei and Jannati.

Sensing that popular sentiment among Iran’s Muslim majority is shifting away from the mullahs, even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has begun utilizing Zoroastrianism’s past for his own political ends. In September 2010, he arranged for the Cyrus Cylinder, a sixth-century B.C. document that speaks of religious tolerance and Iranian greatness, to be loaned from the British Museum. During a public ceremony in Tehran, Ahmadinejad lauded indigenous traditions as superior to Arab-imposed Islam. Privately, his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, even referred to King Cyrus as "a messenger of God."

Their tottering political base has sharpened the Shiite clerics’ ire. Like members of the Christian, Jewish and Baha’i minorities, Zoroastrian activists who protest the theocracy’s excesses are sent to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on charges of sedition. At the ayatollahs’ instigation, Iranian media characterizes the followers of Iran’s ancient faith as polytheists and devil worshipers. Lesser mullahs rant against Zoroastrians not only in Iran, but even at mosques in Toronto.

The Zoroastrian cemetery outside Tehran now faces another challenge: The municipality seeks to lay a highway through it. Some schools and devotional centers in other Zoroastrian strongholds like Yazd and Kerman have also been notified of pending annexation. Communal gatherings are routinely monitored by fundamentalist Muslim authorities who allege that Zoroastrianism "threatens national security and subverts the Islamic revolution."

Protections offered by the Islamic Republic’s constitution have been rendered meaningless in practice. Not surprisingly, the daily regimen of discrimination makes Zoroastrians feel wholly unwelcome in their Iranian homeland. Only between 35,000 and 90,000 now remain in a country of approximately 74 million citizens — and, fearing persecution, many do not readily identify themselves as Zoroastrians.

Yet, Zoroastrians are no mere footnote in human history and religiosity. Their ideas still determine how many of the globe’s residents behave. The end of Zoroastrianism in Iran should be prevented. Making religious freedom a priority in U.S. and EU foreign policies will help achieve that goal.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jamsheed K. Choksy.

© 2011 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

  • Contradhongi.

    And in western India, we have a motley group of bigots persecuting those who want to follow this faith by imposing their fatwas like depriving prayers for departed but who do not allow their mortal remains to rot in once called Dakhmas. 

  • Contradhongi.

    And in western India, we have a motley group of bigots persecuting those who want to follow this faith by imposing their fatwas like depriving prayers for departed but who do not allow their mortal remains to rot in once called Dakhmas. 

  • Rustom

    Well history never forgets, …..for almost 700 years the Byzantine Christian forces thirsted to break Persia and convert it out of Zoroastrianism into the then new faith of Christianity…Any Zoroastrian who stopped conversions into christianity was termed’ Anti God’, Evil, for eg Dastur Aderbad Marespand, Kartir/Kerdar/, Khusru 2..

    Fire temples were broken down…and as Vardad Mamigonian burnt fire temples and claimed fire worship as absurduty, he became the arch St of Armenia….
     This after the early christians being given refuge in Persia Zoroastrian lands  by the Zoroastrians when Rome never favoured them..
    Then came the arab onslaught..and it continues…

    But even 2000 years hence though Zoroastrianism becoming a world’s minority…and the Persia broke , THE Marauders of Zoroastrianism claim the grandeur of Persia…and these two are still battling on in what was persian/zoroastrian lands….maybe d future for these lands is what the past was!!!

  • Rustom

    Well history never forgets, …..for almost 700 years the Byzantine Christian forces thirsted to break Persia and convert it out of Zoroastrianism into the then new faith of Christianity…Any Zoroastrian who stopped conversions into christianity was termed’ Anti God’, Evil, for eg Dastur Aderbad Marespand, Kartir/Kerdar/, Khusru 2..

    Fire temples were broken down…and as Vardad Mamigonian burnt fire temples and claimed fire worship as absurduty, he became the arch St of Armenia….
     This after the early christians being given refuge in Persia Zoroastrian lands  by the Zoroastrians when Rome never favoured them..
    Then came the arab onslaught..and it continues…

    But even 2000 years hence though Zoroastrianism becoming a world’s minority…and the Persia broke , THE Marauders of Zoroastrianism claim the grandeur of Persia…and these two are still battling on in what was persian/zoroastrian lands….maybe d future for these lands is what the past was!!!

  • Gandhimani7@gmail.com

    We have been subdued and cowed down for generations till it is now in our genes to look the other way in case we or our loved ones come to any harm ! The spirit in us to rise to do or die is no more. A superhuman effort is required to rise above our petty ideology as portrayed by the “Parsees of Mumbai” who believe they are the only inheritors of this great religion.

  • Gandhimani7@gmail.com

    We have been subdued and cowed down for generations till it is now in our genes to look the other way in case we or our loved ones come to any harm ! The spirit in us to rise to do or die is no more. A superhuman effort is required to rise above our petty ideology as portrayed by the “Parsees of Mumbai” who believe they are the only inheritors of this great religion.

  • Zarathushtri

    Down with the Iranian regime, down with the hypocritical Mullahs and down with their so called Islam.  Religion of peace? I doubt it.

    Iran is the land where humanity’s first declaration of human rights was made by our Zoroastrian ancestor Cyrus the Great.  What does this present regime do to respect the founding father’s ideas?  Nothing at all.  I personally hope Israel and America blow the hell out of this present regime which is a scurge to humanity. Long live Zoroastrians and long may the peaceful religion of Zarathustra survive.  We Zoroastrians are facing tests from Ahura Mazda and Ahriman has taken his foothold in the world and it is inevitable that goodness will die and be replaced by evil.  We Zoroastrians must remain pure at heart and follow our Prophet’s teachings. 

  • Zarathushtri

    Down with the Iranian regime, down with the hypocritical Mullahs and down with their so called Islam.  Religion of peace? I doubt it.

    Iran is the land where humanity’s first declaration of human rights was made by our Zoroastrian ancestor Cyrus the Great.  What does this present regime do to respect the founding father’s ideas?  Nothing at all.  I personally hope Israel and America blow the hell out of this present regime which is a scurge to humanity. Long live Zoroastrians and long may the peaceful religion of Zarathustra survive.  We Zoroastrians are facing tests from Ahura Mazda and Ahriman has taken his foothold in the world and it is inevitable that goodness will die and be replaced by evil.  We Zoroastrians must remain pure at heart and follow our Prophet’s teachings. 

  • Kootar

    lovely

  • Kootar

    lovely

  • Kootar

    lovely

  • Firoz J. Pajnigar.

     If this is true, then it is disgusting on the part of the present government to harass the minorities of Iran.All people should get together and fight for religious freedom, peaceful coexistence and unity.
    All people should get together and fight for religious freedom, peaceful coexistence and unity.

  • Firoz J. Pajnigar.

     If this is true, then it is disgusting on the part of the present government to harass the minorities of Iran.All people should get together and fight for religious freedom, peaceful coexistence and unity.
    All people should get together and fight for religious freedom, peaceful coexistence and unity.

  • Jeannieantiawimmer

    Open Zorastrianism world-wide and there will be no fear of distinction …

  • Jeannieantiawimmer

    Open Zorastrianism world-wide and there will be no fear of distinction …

  • Zarathushtri

    What do you mean by lovely?

  • Zarathushtri

    What do you mean by lovely?

  • Bobkal

    I  agree with the sentiments by you.

  • Pashjehan

    Bigots..? Why bigots? What makes a community or people stand out from the rest? Its culture, its traditions n way of life. Why should the few who wish to safeguard their way of life be called bigots? Each person is free to make a choice with their own life….but why should anyone be given a free hand to changea culture a tradition a way of life…or for that matter even a religious dictat? In the name of modernisation should we allow all our distinctive traditions to change so we can become like the person next door n mingle into the greater population? Thats exactly what will happen if we let our culture n traditions be moulded one by one to suit each persons whims n fancy. The best thing about Zoroastrianism is the freedom of choice. If u have made a choice…have the good sense to live with it. God knows i would !

  • Pashjehan

    Bigots..? Why bigots? What makes a community or people stand out from the rest? Its culture, its traditions n way of life. Why should the few who wish to safeguard their way of life be called bigots? Each person is free to make a choice with their own life….but why should anyone be given a free hand to changea culture a tradition a way of life…or for that matter even a religious dictat? In the name of modernisation should we allow all our distinctive traditions to change so we can become like the person next door n mingle into the greater population? Thats exactly what will happen if we let our culture n traditions be moulded one by one to suit each persons whims n fancy. The best thing about Zoroastrianism is the freedom of choice. If u have made a choice…have the good sense to live with it. God knows i would !

  • Pashjehan

    Bigots..? Why bigots? What makes a community or people stand out from the rest? Its culture, its traditions n way of life. Why should the few who wish to safeguard their way of life be called bigots? Each person is free to make a choice with their own life….but why should anyone be given a free hand to changea culture a tradition a way of life…or for that matter even a religious dictat? In the name of modernisation should we allow all our distinctive traditions to change so we can become like the person next door n mingle into the greater population? Thats exactly what will happen if we let our culture n traditions be moulded one by one to suit each persons whims n fancy. The best thing about Zoroastrianism is the freedom of choice. If u have made a choice…have the good sense to live with it. God knows i would !

  • Phiroze

    Well said Mr. Pashjehan. Why should the Parsis change just because a few free loaders want to have the cake and keep it too? No one is deprived of the prayers for the departed. Madon and Mirza are ever ready to perform them. Those who have problems with the Dokhmas are free to use the govt. provided crematoria.

  • Phiroze

    Well said Mr. Pashjehan. Why should the Parsis change just because a few free loaders want to have the cake and keep it too? No one is deprived of the prayers for the departed. Madon and Mirza are ever ready to perform them. Those who have problems with the Dokhmas are free to use the govt. provided crematoria.

  • Dara

    I would like to remind you that have contradicted yourself.

    On one hand you make a lofty statement: “Each person is free to make a choice with their own life…” and by your other hand you rap on the knuckles of those who want to accept electrical cremation, as against solar cremation, and deny them four days of prayers at the Doongerwadi bunglees!!! 

    As per www.thefreedictionary.com a bigot is “one who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ…” 

    By ‘fatwaing’ against the priests who were willing to pray for (of their own free will) those that opt to be cremated rather than be consigned to the Doongerwadi dakhma … thus depriving prayers for those who made their ‘choice’ — is nothing short of bigotry. 

    And also bullying two priests …  spending close to two crores ( of, not their personal, but community funds)  proves without a shadow of doubt that the bigots can go the whole hog right up to the supreme court to show their power and contemptuous use of community pelf  rather than justly serve the entire community.

    Now that the Doongerwadi bunglees are grossly under-utilised i wonder what new schemes will be thought up to reduce the loss in revenue.

        

  • Dara

    I would like to remind you that have contradicted yourself.

    On one hand you make a lofty statement: “Each person is free to make a choice with their own life…” and by your other hand you rap on the knuckles of those who want to accept electrical cremation, as against solar cremation, and deny them four days of prayers at the Doongerwadi bunglees!!! 

    As per www.thefreedictionary.com a bigot is “one who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ…” 

    By ‘fatwaing’ against the priests who were willing to pray for (of their own free will) those that opt to be cremated rather than be consigned to the Doongerwadi dakhma … thus depriving prayers for those who made their ‘choice’ — is nothing short of bigotry. 

    And also bullying two priests …  spending close to two crores ( of, not their personal, but community funds)  proves without a shadow of doubt that the bigots can go the whole hog right up to the supreme court to show their power and contemptuous use of community pelf  rather than justly serve the entire community.

    Now that the Doongerwadi bunglees are grossly under-utilised i wonder what new schemes will be thought up to reduce the loss in revenue.

        

  • Phiroze

    If at all there is a contradiction then it is with those who have problems with Dokhmenasini but still want to use the bunglees which are a part of the system. Having made a choice be gracious enough to find another place for the prayers too. The figure of 2 crores spent is another myth spread by the double faced progressives besides the one that the two priests are banned from all places. 

  • Phiroze

    If at all there is a contradiction then it is with those who have problems with Dokhmenasini but still want to use the bunglees which are a part of the system. Having made a choice be gracious enough to find another place for the prayers too. The figure of 2 crores spent is another myth spread by the double faced progressives besides the one that the two priests are banned from all places. 

  • Daisy_aspi

    If this is true then it is a shame on the part of the Iranian Government. All people must get together and fight this injustice. One thing is sure..We are race that has survived against all odds and I am sure by the grace of Lord Ahuramazda we will overcome this also. i have full fiath in the purity of our religion and the miraculous powers of Lord Ahuramazda.

  • Daisy_aspi

    If this is true then it is a shame on the part of the Iranian Government. All people must get together and fight this injustice. One thing is sure..We are race that has survived against all odds and I am sure by the grace of Lord Ahuramazda we will overcome this also. i have full fiath in the purity of our religion and the miraculous powers of Lord Ahuramazda.

  • RATHESTAR

    What exactly you have in mind by  mentioning the word ‘freeloaders’. Do you understand  meaning og this word? Those who hog in free ghambars and election campaigns and annual meets at RWITC  where scotch flows free are freeloaders. Not those who want to remember Ahura Mazda in the House of  God.

  • RATHESTAR

    What exactly you have in mind by  mentioning the word ‘freeloaders’. Do you understand  meaning og this word? Those who hog in free ghambars and election campaigns and annual meets at RWITC  where scotch flows free are freeloaders. Not those who want to remember Ahura Mazda in the House of  God.

  • Zerxes Dordi

    Just see the hypocrisy. Same Phiroze is eager to know about the Parsee property under litigation. Does likes of Phiroze of capacity to visualize as to what is going to happen to properties of our community in Mumbai  after another two to three decades. These ‘visionaries’ are soo ‘far sighted’ that they will to day deny their Parsee fellow men use of the same property. Cussedness is characterised by this attitude.

  • Dr. Vasudev Chaturvedi

    Many intelligent Persians who are Muslims often speak with with pride of their Aryan-Zoroastrian past a few stupid fanatics can not change history

  • Zerxes Dordi

    What exactly do you imply by the word tradition? Is it going to attend Fire Temples then I agree it is tradition but if it means getting  accommodation in a Charity Building then just remind you that in the times of the Prophet there were no Punchayats and no subsidized housing.

  • Zerxes Dordi

    What exactly do you imply by the word tradition? Is it going to attend Fire Temples then I agree it is tradition but if it means getting  accommodation in a Charity Building then just remind you that in the times of the Prophet there were no Punchayats and no subsidized housing.

  • Surinaya

    I wish every Zoroastrian in India and the west where we do not have to worry about practicing our faith the way it was handed down to us from the time of Zoroaster would read this articles to become aware of how our brethren in yezd are having to face everyday of their lives. Instead of changing our great religion along with our sacred texts for no other purpose but to change the religion to suit their own hidden agendas. My grandfather came from yezd in 1908 walking with his mother behind caravans to India. He grew up in India and went back as a young man. He was the principal of a Zoroastrian college yezd and had in addition 13 village schools under him. He was employed by the ammelioration fund. He would tell us stories of the plight of the villagers during the 30’s and 40’s. Reading this article makes my blood boil. I wish I could do something to save my fellow yezdi’s. More power to you mr. Chowksey. Please keep on writing these articles. Maybe something good will come out of this. We as zoroastrians need to stop running after things that are negative and go after saving our poor coreligionists and saving them. This will bring out pride in our selves by doing the right thing.

  • Surinaya

    I wish every Zoroastrian in India and the west where we do not have to worry about practicing our faith the way it was handed down to us from the time of Zoroaster would read this articles to become aware of how our brethren in yezd are having to face everyday of their lives. Instead of changing our great religion along with our sacred texts for no other purpose but to change the religion to suit their own hidden agendas. My grandfather came from yezd in 1908 walking with his mother behind caravans to India. He grew up in India and went back as a young man. He was the principal of a Zoroastrian college yezd and had in addition 13 village schools under him. He was employed by the ammelioration fund. He would tell us stories of the plight of the villagers during the 30’s and 40’s. Reading this article makes my blood boil. I wish I could do something to save my fellow yezdi’s. More power to you mr. Chowksey. Please keep on writing these articles. Maybe something good will come out of this. We as zoroastrians need to stop running after things that are negative and go after saving our poor coreligionists and saving them. This will bring out pride in our selves by doing the right thing.