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Parsis debate race vs religion

mumbai Updated: Sep 19, 2010 00:59 IST
Aarefa Johari
Aarefa Johari
Hindustan Times
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In February, Russian Zoroastrian Michael Chistyakov rubbed several orthodox Indian Parsi leaders the wrong way when he came to Gujarat to become a religious priest.

He returned to Russia almost immediately, but left behind a community divided more vehemently on questions of conversion and ethnicity than ever before.

One group, led by the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), has vociferously rejected the conversion of anyone not ethnically a Parsi-Irani into the Zoroastrian faith.

But the smaller group of reformists, who maintain that religion must be kept separate from race, are now speaking up with more fervour.

“The claim that only Parsis from India and Iran can belong to this religion is flawed.

When Zoroastrians escaped from Iran over a thousand years ago, there were groups that went to other regions such as China, Russia and Central Asia,” said Meher Master-Moos, president of the Zoroastrian College in Sanjan, Gujarat, where Chistyakov was to perform his priesthood initiation rites.

Last month, Moos and Chistyakov filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court accusing several trustees and members of the BPP of breaking into the College on February 19 and violently disrupting the Russian’s initiation ceremony. The case is expected to be admitted in court either in September-end or the first week of October.

According to Chistyakov, there are hundreds of people in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine who consider themselves Zoroastrian.

While some claim Zoroastrian ancestry, many were drawn to the faith in the religious revival of the 1990s, after a long period of State-enforced atheism. “Zarathustra brought religion to all, not just to Parsis, who are people of a specific nationality,” Chistyakov told Hindustan Times in an email interview. “Nobody has a monopoly over truth or religion. If we want to become Zoroastrians, how can Parsis stop us?”

However, BPP trustee Khojeste Mistree said that their objection has always been to conversions taking place in India. “We cannot police the world. People seek our religion because of its wonderful philosophy, but ethnicity is important so we cannot recognise them,” said Mistree.

“The advantage of having an ethno-focused faith is that we are more tolerant and don’t go on killing binges in the name of religion.”

Punchayet leaders such as Mistree and chairman Dinshaw Mehta insist that Parsis have managed to live in non-violent harmony with other Indian communities only because of their 1,300-year tradition of maintaining racial purity.

“To allow conversions now would go against the ethos of the country,” said Mehta.

Most reformist Parsis, however, strongly dismiss such claims. “In most democracies, such an attitude would be recognised as racism,” said Jehangir Patel, editor of the reformist community magazine Parsiana.

The city’s Paris youth, too, is divided on the issue of conversions.

While popular youth forums such as the Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation have intensified their focus on marrying within the ethnic community by organising monthly speed-dating events, there are some who sympathise with the reformists.

“If someone from another country has studied the religion in depth and wants to wholeheartedly adopt it, I don’t see a problem in it,” said Huzvak Bhagat (29), an Andheri resident working with the merchant navy.