Why don't the Iranians return to Zoroastrianism?

Iran: A creeping exodus

Iran ranks eighth on the 2017 World Persecution Index of the interdenominational aid organization Open Doors, making it one of those countries in which Christians are exposed to a very high level of persecution. The hope that the situation in this relationship would ease after the conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015 was deceptive. In practice, almost every Christian activity is a violation of the law, especially if it takes place in the Persian language, Farsi. The government has stepped up efforts to drive Farsi-speaking Christians out of the country.

At the end of 2015, for example, Farshid Fathi Malayeri was released early from prison after five years in prison. In the course of a wave of arrests, he and 68 other Christians were arrested on December 26, 2010 for "acts against national security" and sentenced to six years in prison. The background: Fathi had converted from Islam to Christianity and he was also accused of having proselytized among Muslims.

Fathi was allowed to leave Iran after his release. But the dream of leading a life in freedom with his wife and two children, who have been in exile in Canada since 2013, did not come true. The time in prison was too much of a strain on the marriage - she got divorced.

The "State of God"

But why do personal and religious freedoms endanger national security? Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been a state of God officially operating as the Islamic Republic, whose entire state and social system is based on Islam and Sharia. There is no separation of state and religion - and also no separation of powers. Above everything, including the elected politicians, are the head of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the "Guardian Council". Religion and state form a unit, the Koran and Sunna set limits to legislation.

According to the Iranian constitution, all people enjoy the same protection of the law, but only "in accordance with Islamic criteria". And the state religion is Shiite Islam. There is no religious freedom that protects individual people in their religious and ideological beliefs, and even allows them to turn to another religious community. And this despite the fact that by signing the "International Covenant on Civil Rights" Iran has committed itself to protecting and respecting religious freedom.

Hannes Schopf is a journalist, was editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper "Die Furche" from 1984 to 1994, then head of public relations for the Association of Austrian Newspapers (VÖZ) and is currently ombudsman of the Austrian Press Council.

Of the roughly 80.5 million inhabitants today, 99 percent are Muslim, 90 percent of them Shiites - Iran is the most important center of the Twelve Shia - and around nine percent Sunnis. All religious minorities together make up just under one percent of the Iranian population.

In terms of religious history, Iran is one of the most interesting countries in the world. The oldest Iranian religion, dating from around the seventh to fourth centuries BC. The monotheistic Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest revelatory religions on earth, has spread into the Persian cultural area and has survived from the great empire of the Achaemenids (559-330 BC) to our days.

In Zarathustra's religious doctrine, Ahura Mazda - probably an amalgamation of various earlier Indo-Iranian deities - is the creator god of the universe, who created heaven, earth and man. Linked to this is the belief in the redemption of people when they live with good thoughts, good words and good deeds as well as the belief in the eternity of the soul and in the reward for good deeds. And the religious-moral dualism also has its origin in this: Man himself has the free choice between the good and the bad way.

In the "Babylonian captivity" from which the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great 539 BC When the Jews were liberated in the 3rd century BC, the Jewish community in exile became familiar with these religious ideas, such as the monotheistic idea and the concept of personal responsibility. In the time of Cyrus - i.e. until the 6th century BC. BC - the settlement of those released Jews on Persian territory who did not want to return to Palestine also declines.

With the spread of Christianity in the Middle East, Christian communities developed in Persia from the "Hellenistic" period of the Parthian dynasty, such as those of the Armenian and Assyrian Christians.

Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians - these three monotheistic "scriptural religions" of the pre-Islamic era in Persia - are now recognized in the Iranian constitution as religious minorities, for which five seats are reserved in each case in parliamentary elections, in which a total of 290 seats are awarded. That is now one side.

The other side

Although recognized as religious minorities, their believers are only allowed to practice their religion as long as they do not proselytize or violate the Islamic order. For example, the Islamic dress code - including the obligation to wear a headscarf - applies to them, as does gender segregation at public gatherings. The printing of Christian scriptures, especially publications in Farsi, which is understandable for Iranians, as well as services in this language are forbidden. Mixed marriages with Muslims are excluded.