Ancient Religions Clash in Modern Iran

October 4, 2006

Author: Robert Tait

Source: The Guardian

The boisterous scenes of wine, unveiled women and song confounded the popular stereotype of religious worship in contemporary Iran. In an isolated and awe-inspiring mountain setting, followers of an ancient faith were communing with God in festive and time-honoured fashion.

But when the government VIPs arrived, normal order - as defined by the country's stringent Islamic laws - was restored. The merriment ended, women were ordered to cover up - and grumbles of discontent (albeit muted and discreet) began.

"This is the only time during the year when we are allowed to do what we want, but even here they don't leave us alone," said Giti, 55, reluctantly putting on her headscarf.

She was one of thousands of Zoroastrians gathered at Chak-Chak in the central Iranian desert for a five-day pilgrimage that is the biggest annual event in the religion's calendar.

Pilgrims had climbed to the shrine where Nikbanou, daughter of the country's last Zoroastrian monarch, King Yazdgerd III, is said to have sought refuge in 652AD from the Arab conquerors who brought Islam to Iran. Lighting candles in line with the Zoroastrian belief that fire symbolises God's light, they worshipped the credo of "good thoughts, good speech, good deeds" which the faith's founding prophet, Zoroaster - also known as Zarathustra - propounded at least 3,000 years ago. They also conversed noisily in a pre-Islamic form of Persian stripped of the modern Arabic loan words used by their Muslim compatriots.

But the sense of refuge worshippers traditionally enjoy was tested by the unprecedented government attention paid to this year's event, in the form of a visiting delegation sent by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along with interior and culture ministry officials.

By requiring worshippers to observe Islamic dress in their own sacred place, the high-level visit illustrated the second-class status of Zoroastrianism - believed to be the world's oldest monotheistic faith - in its land of origin.