Iran: Whatever happened to the Zoroastrians?

Once the Persian state religion, but what of Zoroastrianism now in the world's most powerful Shia-dominated country?

t one time it was one of the largest religions on the planet. It dominated during the Achaemenid Empire in Persia from 550 to 330 BC until that power was defeated by Alexander III of Macedon. Xerxes had been a follower of Zoroaster.

But as Islam prevailed and Twelver Shia held sway, Zoroastrians must have mostly converted. For 90-95% of all Iranians are now Muslim. Most Persians are Shi'ites while the Kurdish and Baluchi minorities tend to be Sunni. Of the 2-5% remainder, there is a dwindling population of Zoroastrians who are effectively treated as only one of a number of marginalised minorities in their own land.

Zoroastrians were persecuted for centuries. However, during the Pahlavi dynasty Zoroastriansim became a symbol of Iranian nationalism. But when the Islamic Republic was established after the Iranian revolution in 1979, Zoroastrians fled to America, the UK, Australia or Canada.

In Iran, Zoroastrians are recognised under the 1906 Constitution and, even today, they are allocated one seat in parliament in Tehran, at present held by Esfandiar Ekhtiari Kassnavieh.

Zoroastrians are called Parsis in India, and Freddie Mercury of the band Queen was a Zanzibar-born Parsi. Several thousand Parsis also exist in Pakistan.

But it's sad that the roots of a culture could be so severely stamped on for so many centuries. Adherants to Zoroastrianism might feel hopeful that one day their religion will be recognised as a central feature of Iranian society. When pluralism finally prevails in Iran, perhaps Zoroastrians will raise their heads once again. And Zoroastrian expats can return.

Iran recognises Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians as religious minorities and allocates each one seat in the parliament. According to a US Department of State report from 2009, the Iranian government calculates there are 30-35,000 Zoroastrians in Iran. Zoroastrian groups estimate there are up to 60,000 adherants still in the country. Although, members of all three minority communities continue to emigrate at an alarming rate.

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