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“Nothing will come of them”

Amid the turmoil in the Middle East, references to Zoroastrianism keep cropping up. The most prominent were by the dictatorial president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to the Istanbul based Hurriyat Daily News and before a gathering in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on May 28, 2016 Erdogan referred to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (Partiya Karkearên Kurdistan or PKK) as "atheists… they are Zoroastrians. Nothing will come of them. They have not and are not acting with our values." On June 8, the zealously pro Erdogan daily Aksam headlined a story "Zoroastrians! The Traitors of PKK shed Blood in Ramadan."

The Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America president Homi Gandhi wrote to the Turkish ambassador in the US and Canada on July 11, explaining dismay at "the recent anti-Zoroastrian rhetoric emanating from Turkey… such rhetoric sowing suspicion of a minority community, typically ends up giving license for discrimination, or worse. It also has the potential to defame Zoroastrians far beyond Turkey’s borders in regions not familiar with this peaceable community."

The Kurds are valiantly fighting the Islamic State (IS) terrorists but have run afoul of the Turkish government partly on account of their demands for an independent state of Kurdistan. Undeterred by the criticism, Yasna NGO, that promotes the cultural aspects of Zoroastrianism based in Sulaymaniyah province in the Kurdistan Region, "announced a plan this August 21 to open a centre in Afrin city in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) for the followers of the faith in the region," stated the website basnews. The website goes on to state that Awat Tayib, the head of the organization and the representative of Zoroastrians in the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs in the Kurdistan Region said that the "Zoroastrian faith has made incredible progress in Kurdistan Region… A growing number of Kurds, particularly among the youth, started to convert to Zoroastrianism following the Islamic State (IS) attack on Kurdistan Region."

In the third week of August a 5.34-minute video of two men, being purportedly initiated into the Zoroastrian faith in Kurdistan, was widely viewed on WhatsApp. While certain parts of the Avestan prayers were clearly discernible, one could not comprehend the entire recitation chanted to the accompaniment of a daf percussion player. Neither was the girdle similar to the kusti known to Parsis. Resembling a sash, one individual had a brown one and the other a black, which the officiant tied around the person’s waist three times. The accompanying text explained that "instead of a kusti they use their turban which they wear on their waist."

Devoid of any religious or festival background, the initiates and their companions were seen standing outside a desolate building with three flags hoisted behind them, supposedly of Iran and independent Kurdistan.

While Parsiana has no way of verifying the authenticity of the video or when and where it was taken or of the explanation offered, in our June 21, 2015 issue "Kurds turn to Zoroastrianism" (Zoroastrians Abroad) reference was made to a news report of Alaa Latif titled ‘Fed up with Islam and Sectarianism, some Iraqis embrace Zoroastrianism" that appeared on The Daily Beast, an American news reporting and opinion website. The piece noted that in a rural part of Sulaymaniyah province in Iraq "an ancient ceremony" was conducted on May 1 whereby "followers put on a special belt that signifies that they are ready to serve the religion and observe its tenets… The newly pledged Zoroastrians have said that they will organize similar ceremonies elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan and they have also asked permission to build up to 12 temples inside the region which has its own borders, military and parliament."

In the Spring 2016 FEZANA Journal editor Dolly Dastoor wrote about the "hardships the Kurds are facing in wanting to revert to their original religion and their determination against all odds to do so."

In an article on titled, "Co-opting the Prophet: The politics of Kurdish and Tajik claims to Zarathushtra and Zoroastrianism," Prof Richard Foltz of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, states, "That the ancient religion of the Kurds was a predominantly Iranian one is not in my opinion a matter of debate. However, there is considerable evidence that their religious traditions ran parallel to Zoroastrianism, as opposed to following it… Moreover, the core aspects of these faiths have little in common…

"Zoroastrians in all three contemporary contexts — Kurdish, Tajik and Iranian — tend to… (strip) the religion of its legal and ritual aspects while emphasizing the ethical core of good thoughts, good words, good deeds…

"In the end, however, all such claims of unique or privileged ownership over an ancient cultural heritage are somewhat meaningless. What is meaningful is the way individuals and societies draw upon the past in order to construct an identity in the present."

According to a news report titled "The Religion that the Iranian Mullahs Fear Most" by Zenobia Ravji, associate director of Coalitions, The Israel Project, published on the Washington DC based website in May 2016, "Growing numbers of Iranians inside and outside the country are exploring a faith that crystalized two millennia before Prophet Muhammed appeared on the scene. ‘Converting back’ to Zoroastrianism, as many refer to the process of rediscovering their roots, has encouraged a view of Islam as an alien Arab faith that was imposed on unwilling Persians during the Muslim conquest of the seventh century."

She goes on to state "as far as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was concerned, Zoroastrians were, as he wrote before the Revolution, ‘dishonorable, fire-worshipping knaves… if this fire of dirt that has risen from the temples of Fars is not extinguished, soon the trash will spread and they invite all to join the Zoroastrian creed.’"

But according to the website en, Khomeini had stated on February 10, 1979, "All minorities should rest assured that Islam has always behaved in a humanitarian fashion and impartially with them. Minorities are a part and parcel of our nation."

Professor of Central Eurasian Studies Jamsheed Choksy of Indiana University wrote in an article for on November 14, 2011 that despite step-motherly and sometime hostile treatment from the mullahs, "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." The academic notes that even the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a public ceremony in Tehran lauded "indigenous traditions as superior to Arab imposed Islam."

But with so many Zoroastrians opting to migrate to the West, their religious presence will diminish in Iran as is happening in India. Finally Zoroastrians in Iran may fade not from discrimination but declining numbers. Whether the ancient faith survives in the Kurdish areas of a hostile Middle East is still to be seen. But it’s heartening to know that there are some attempting to revive their ancient religion.


Villoo Poonawalla