American diaspora taking lead in pushing for reform in Zoroastrianism

As Zoroastrianism becomes a global faith due to immigration, the American diaspora is calling for a more pluralistic and reformed approach toward those outside the fold, although it is uncertain how these proposals will be received by the religion’s leaders, writes Paulina Niechcial in the journal Culture and Religion (online in May). Zoroastrianism is an ancient monotheistic religion originating in Iran and India that has spread throughout the West through immigration. In recent years, the faith has struggled with decline, one reason being that only those born into Zoroastrianism are considered members. Niechcial (Jagiellonian University, Poland) attended the World Zoroastrian Congress (WZC) events in Perth, Australia in 2014 and in New York City in 2022 and studied how these gatherings both reflected changes and generated new demands among the faithful. The WZC is held every four or five years, with its recent meeting in the U.S. reflecting the religion’s significant growth and youthful membership in North America (with now over 20,000 adherents) and decreases in its homelands of India and Iran (totaling 76,000). Serving both as a festival and educational event, the congress in New York stressed the theme of belonging, even challenging the belief that the faith has an authentic homeland outside the diasporas.

12th World Zoroastrian Congress in New York in 2022 (source:

The inclusiveness of Zoroastrianism was also emphasized, showcasing the presence of Kurds from Iraqi Kurdistan who had left Islam for Zoroastrianism. These Kurds’ portrayal of themselves as “reverts” who had returned to their ancestral religion made them more acceptable to traditional Zoroastrian communities. Even more challenging to Zoroastrian orthodoxy during the congress was research presented by two young scholars on the identity formation of children having one Parsi Zoroastrian parent and one non-Parsi and non-Zoroastrian parent. One of the scholars touched on an even more controversial subject, the identity of people who did not come from Zoroastrian families but became “Zoroastrian by choice.” Other personal stories told on stage during the WZC in New York argued that Zoroastrianism could not be reduced to a black-and-white division between those born into the religion and outsiders. At the end of the congress, a survey taken during the event showed that 70 percent of the attendees agreed that Zoroastrianism was a set of rules and behaviors, not something one had to be born into. A 2023 survey also found wide acceptance of interfaith marriages (with 77 percent support worldwide and 90.5 percent in the diaspora). Another theme of the conference was about equality, namely the perception of discrimination against women in the religion. The taboo of menstruating women and their exclusion from rituals and the discrimination against women in interfaith marriages (where men are seen as the transmitters of the faith) were questioned.

The even more controversial idea of LGBTQ+ acceptance was also broached, with the presence of rainbow flags and young people singing “We Are the Champions” by Freddy Mercury, a famous bisexual rock singer of Parsi descent. These themes and the suggested reforms in New York were not present at the 2014 congress, which was guided more by India’s conservative Parsi leadership along with some Iranian leaders (who, because of distance and travel restrictions, were less prominent). The later event suggests that the pressures of growing rates of interfaith marriages of Zoroastrians (comprising almost 25 percent of American members) and the decline of the Zoroastrian population could lead to shifts in policy and teachings. Niechcial concludes that like other religious festivals (such as the Catholic World Youth Day), the WZC shows how “church-controlled collective life” is giving way to individual interpretations and experiences. But without a centralized authority, the ferment seen in the recent WZC could be just as much a source of new divisions as of change and reform in world Zoroastrianism.

(Culture and Religion,