HistoryDr. Daryoush Jahanian, president of the Zoroastrian Association of Kansas (ZAKA), came to the United States to escape religious oppression in his homeland of Iran. Iran has historically been the country with the largest population of Zoroastrians. Its government and citizens had, through discriminatory laws and racist attitudes, become inhospitable to the relatively few remaining Zoroastrians. As a result, many Zoroastrians fled Iran and other Middle Eastern countries for the comparatively neutral ground of Europe and North America. Few Kansas City Zoroastrians report experiencing hostility or bias in America. However, Zoroastrianism is far removed from its former status as one of the main world religions, with approximately 270,000 members worldwide and only some 25,000 members in North America, according to writer Roshan Rivetna. Due to the scarcity of Zoroastrians in the Midwest, the Kansas City area group does not congregate at a traditional fire temple similar to those found in India or Iran during Zoroastrianism’s heyday. Although there are several ornate temples in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, a traditional temple in the Kansas City area is neither cost-efficient nor really necessary. Instead, local Zoroastrians meet at varying times at members’ houses and at the home of Dr. Farahnaz Aery-Kalanari on the first Sunday of every month. According to Dr. Kalanari, the small number of Zoroastrians in Kansas City and the world does not mean that Zoroastrianism is dying. She hopes that the oppression in the Middle East will end. Dr. Jahanian told an interviewer, “Gradually Zoroastrians are coming out of their shells--for a long time they were either oppressed or didn’t believe in conversion.” Dr. Kalanari explained that Zoroastrians, perhaps because of their history of persecution, are naturally unimposing people. Ahura Mazda teaches that people are born into the religion they were meant to be born into, making some followers hesitant about recruiting converts. However, some Zoroastrians are open to the idea of conversion, especially in the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan, where residents claim ancestral Zoroastrian roots and have converted to Zoroastrianism en masse. A challenge to modern believers is the belief that intermarriage with other religions is against the will of Ahura Mazda, the divine ruler and creator who commands the side of good in the cosmic struggle. The teaching about intermarriage is one of the founding tenets of ancient Zoroastrianism. Since the only way to be a true Zoroastrian is to be born into a Zoroastrian family, this religious precept, if taken literally, has some problematic implications for the future of this tradition. Conservative Zoroastrian leaders now stop short of forbidding intermarriage but strongly urge against it, warning that it will lead to assimilation and eventual disintegration of the faith. There are online databases of single Zoroastrians of marriageable age to facilitate the difficult process of marrying within a widely scattered religion.
DemographicsThe members of ZAKA span several generations, from infants to their septuagenarian predecessors. The oldest member is 74 years old; the youngest is 12 months. Overall there are roughly 100 members of the church, with 27 members under the age of 18 and the majority of members between the ages of 18 and 50. Most of the members of the church are of direct Iranian descent and speak at least some Persian, with many of the members fluent in Farsi, the more common dialect of Persian. Avestan, the Persian dialect of Zoroastrianism’s sacred book, the Avesta, is also spoken to some degree by all of the members of the church. Children memorize sacred chants and prayers in Avestan.
Physical Description of the Center and its FacilitiesThere is no specific “center”; the group's activities are held at members’ houses, with the exception of the children’s study group, which meets monthly at the Kalanari home. Consequently, the meeting places are not equipped with the traditional of a fire temple, such as a perpetually burning fire altar and images of Zarathustra. Homes of ardent Zoroastrians occasionally have some Zoroastrian art or religious artifacts. However, these personal items are part of the home’s décor and are not intended to be the focus of worship. Despite the lack of a traditional temple, the Kansas City Zoroastrians feel well served by the Kalanaris’ offer of their home every month and the generosity of other families who invite the group into their homes for frequent informal gatherings.
Center ActivitiesThere is no fixed worship schedule. Individual members may pray at any time; members feel their faith is not affected by the informality of their worship. On the first Sunday of every month at 11:00 a.m. there is a children’s study group where priest Sirous Felfeli teaches the children prayers and other excerpts from the Avesta. The adults usually socialize at the gatherings. The Zoroastrian faith celebrates the new year or the birth of prophet Zarathustra on March 26th. On or near this date Zoroastrians in the region gather at a central location and have a celebration that includes a prayer conducted by priest Felfeli, recitations by the youngest members of the group of prayer and song excerpts from the Avesta, dinner, and dancing. Other activities include the initiation of early teen-aged members of the group into Zoroastrian adulthood. Visitors are welcome.
Research NotesFor more information on the Zoroastrian faith, refer to the World Zoroastrian Organization’s website at www.w-z-o.org, or the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA)’s website at www.fezana.org
Approximately 100 members
Direct Iranian descent