Zoroastrians, Divided Over Conversion, Face a Shrinking Future

March 31, 2007

Author: Rana Rosen

Source: Beliefnet

Wire Service: RNS


As a high school boy in Minnesota, Joseph Peterson spent the late 1960s reading at the local library, passing over Mad Magazine or sci-fi novels in favor of ancient religious texts.

The scripture of the Zoroastrians -- the faith of the old Persian Empire -- captured the Christian teenager with its reverence for nature and belief that God created good but not evil.

"It was years before I would meet another Zoroastrian," he said. Donning a "sudra," or sacred white shirt tied with a chord, Peterson began to dress, pray and think of himself as a Zoroastrian. He was unaware, however, that he was entering a faith that forbids converts.

The religion's closed-door policy might be unremarkable if it was thriving. But Zoroastrianism, once a major religion considered by some experts to be the first monotheistic faith, is in danger of extinction with an estimated 160,000 adherents across the globe. A more generous estimate puts that figure at 276,000.

Today, Peterson, 52, is the only widely accepted convert in the United States. The few who recognized him as an equal sparked a fiery debate within Zoroastrianism when he was officially converted in 1983.