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  1. Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism is a religion founded in ancient times by the prophet Zarathushtra, known to the Greeks as Zoroaster.

Zoroastrianism predates Christianity and Islam, and many historians say it influenced those faiths and cross-fertilized Judaism as well, with its doctrines of one God, a dualistic universe of good and evil and a final day of judgment.

While Zoroastrians once dominated an area stretching from what is now Rome and Greece to India and Russia, their global population has dwindled to 190,000 at most, and perhaps as few as 124,000, according to a survey in 2004 by Fezana Journal, published quarterly by the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America. The number is imprecise because of wildly diverging counts in Iran, once known as Persia — the incubator of the faith.

“Survival has become a community obsession,” said Dina McIntyre, an Indian-American lawyer in Chesapeake, Va., who has written and lectured widely on her religion.

The Zoroastrians’ mobility and adaptability has contributed to their demographic crisis. They assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures. And since the faith encourages opportunities for women, many Zoroastrian women are working professionals who, like many other professional women, have few children or none.

Despite their shrinking numbers, Zoroastrians — who follow the Prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek) — are divided over whether to accept intermarried families and converts and what defines a Zoroastrian. An effort to create a global organizing body fell apart two years ago after some priests accused the organizers of embracing “fake converts” and diluting traditions.

“They feel that the religion is not universal and is ethnic in nature, and that it should be kept within the tribe,” said Jehan Bagli, a retired chemist in Toronto who is a priest, or mobed, and president of the North American Mobed Council, which includes about 100 priests. “This is a tendency that to me sometimes appears suicidal. And they are prepared to make that sacrifice.”
– Source: Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling, Laura Goodstein, New York Times, Sep. 6, 2006

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This post was last updated: Sep. 20, 2009