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.
The Iranian government has persecuted Christians, Baha’s, Jews (are any left in Iran?), and others but the persecution and slow destruction of the Zoroastrian community in Iran is, I think, especially bad considering that Zoroastrianism is the indigenous religion of the Persians, until the Muslims invaded in the eighth century.
They were no mere pagans. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion, some believe the earliest monotheists. Their beliefs are thought to have had an important influence on the development of Judaism and Christianity. The Zoroastrians had a highly developed system of ethics. Cyrus the first ruler of the Persian Empire was unique among the kings and conquerors of ancient times in the mildness and tolerance of his rule. His example was followed by most of his successors.
The Zoroastrians have been persecuted since the Muslims invaded Persia in the eighth century. Centuries of discrimination have caused their numbers and culture to decline until only about 20,000 remain in Iran. About a thousand years ago, a large number migrated to India to gain the religious freedom denied in their homeland. About 70,000 of their descendants still live in India where they are called Parsees.
It should come as no surprise that the Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic made things worse for the Zoroastrians.
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.
And yet, curiously enough, this old religion still has an attraction for the Persians.
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.”
This is more a matter of patriotism for the Iranians. The Zoroastrians do not proselytize and do not accept converts. This means that their numbers are declining, even outside of Iran. It is likely that they will die out entirely in the not too distant future. That would be a shame. From what little I know of Persian culture, I do not think that Islam is a very good fit for them. I think the Iranians would be better off if there were some kind of Zoroastrian revival.