Ancient religions clash in modern Iran


October 7, 2006

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Issues | Opinion

It’s one of the world’s oldest religions, but Zoroastrianism is treated with suspicion by Iran’s Islamic state, writes Robert Tait

The village of Chak Chak consists of a shrine perched beneath a towering cliff face. Photograph: Robert Tait.

The boisterous scenes of wine, unveiled women and song confounded the popular stereotype of religious worship in contemporary Iran. In an isolated and awe-inspiring mountain setting, followers of an ancient faith were communing with God in festive and time-honoured fashion.

But when the government VIPs arrived, normal order – as defined by the country’s stringent Islamic laws – was restored. The merriment ended, women were ordered to cover up – and grumbles of discontent (albeit muted and discreet) began.

“This is the only time during the year when we are allowed to do what we want, but even here they don’t leave us alone,” said Giti, 55, reluctantly putting on her headscarf.

She was one of thousands of Zoroastrians gathered at Chak Chak in the central Iranian desert for a five-day pilgrimage that is the biggest annual event in the religion’s calendar.

Pilgrims had climbed to the shrine where Nikbanou, the daughter of the country’s last Zoroastrian monarch, King Yazdgerd III, is said to have sought refuge in 652AD from the Arab conquerors who brought Islam to Iran. Lighting candles in line with the Zoroastrian belief that fire symbolises God’s light, they worshipped the credo of “good thoughts, good speech, good deeds” which the faith’s founding prophet, Zoroaster – also known as Zarathustra – propounded at least 3,000 years ago. They also conversed noisily in a pre-Islamic form of Persian stripped of the modern Arabic loan words used by their Muslim compatriots.

But the sense of refuge worshippers traditionally enjoy was tested by the unprecedented government attention paid to this year’s event, in the form of a visiting delegation sent by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along with interior and culture ministry officials.

By requiring worshippers to observe Islamic dress in their own sacred place, the high-level visit illustrated the second-class status of Zoroastrianism – believed to be the world’s oldest monotheistic faith – in its land of origin.

Kourash Niknam, the sole Zoroastrian MP in Iran’s parliament, insisted the gesture was voluntary. “We just wanted to show respect because it is they who rule and we are living in their community,” he said.

Yet it highlighted the difficult plight of Iran’s estimated 25,000 Zoroastrians under the country’s Shia Islamic governing system.

Officially, Zoroastrians – along with Jews and Armenian and Assyrian Christians – are a constitutionally protected religious minority with guaranteed parliamentary representation.

In practice, complaints of discrimination are widespread. Access to high-level posts in the government and armed forces is blocked. Some Zoroastrians say they are pressured to change their religion. A law awarding Zoroastrians who convert to Islam their entire families’ inheritance at the expense of non-converted relatives has caused misery and bitter resentment. Despite legislation decreeing that all religions are entitled to equal blood money (compensation) awards, Zoroastrians say that, in reality, they still receive only half the sums given to Muslims.

Nor do they feel wholly free in a land where their faith was the majority denomination until the forced mass conversions to Islam that followed the seventh century Arab invasion.

“We don’t have the right to make programmes about our religion,” complained Mr Niknam. “I have no platform on radio or television to go and speak about Zoroastrianism. We cannot get any budget for building a new fire temple when mosques are being built one after another.”

Yet many Zoroastrians say they feel better treated by their Muslim fellow-countrymen than under the last shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Paradoxically, they attribute this to the uniform dress code imposed by the 1979 Islamic revolution, combined with a decline in religious prejudice among younger Muslims.

“Before the revolution, all Muslim women in my home town of Yazd wore chadors and only we Zoroastrians didn’t,” said Goharbanoo, 40. “The Friday prayer leader ruled that on Fridays, Zoroastrian men had to wear white and women traditional clothes. It meant people could recognise us easily and they would be very rude to us. When we went into a grocer’s shop, we wouldn’t be allowed to touch the fruit. We even sat on separate benches at school and had separate drinking water.

“Thanks to the revolution, everyone dresses the same now. People back then were more religious. Today’s generation is ashamed of the prejudice of their ancestors.”

Some Zoroastrians have sought refugee status in America under an officially backed programme to help Iranian religious minorities. But Behzad, 31, an unemployed computer graduate who complained of being denied a gun during his national military service, rejected that option. “Why should we leave? This is our mother country,” he said. “Iranian culture is wonderful. Western culture is stress, stress, stress.”

Wednesday October 4, 2006 Guardian Unlimited