Houstonians of Many Faiths Hold Dialogue with City’s Zoroastrians

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Attendees at the round tables had a lively dialogue with the guidance of the IMH and Zoroastrian moderators.

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: For the past three years, the Interfaith Ministries of Houston, a non-profit group that is well known in the Bayou City for its Meals on Wheels program, has held dialogues with members of various religions that call the city home. Last year, for example, it held a month, long dialogue with the Sikh community and the year before with the Hindu and Buddhist communities.

The Rev. Gregg Han, Director of Community Outreach for Interfaith Ministries of Houston led the event into the dialogue.

The Rev. Gregg Han, Director of Community Outreach for Interfaith Ministries of Houston led the event into the dialogue.

“The concept is to foster an exchange of ideas and views, especially pertaining to the practice of a person’s religion,” said the Rev. Gregg Han, Director of Community Outreach. He welcomed the people to the meeting on the evening of Thursday, November 13, which focused on dialogue with the Zoroastrian community at their Association Center on West Airport, just east of the Beltway 8 West.

After a typical buffet-style Zoroastrian dinner of rice, dal (lentils) and mixed vegetables, followed by ice cream, the attendees settled down for the dialogue. The community hall was packed with over 250 people, with at least one Zoroastrian member and an IMH moderator and people from other faiths filling in the remaining eight seats at each of the round tables.

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Kaemerz Dotiwala gave a quick slide show and introduction into the Zoroastrian religion.

“Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country,” said Han, “and tonight we have the rare opportunity to meet with the Zoroastrian community.” Referring to the Interfaith dialogues, he said that the whole country looked at this as a test for their own communities. “These dialogues will equip and encourage you to become bridge builders.”

Kaemerz Dotiwala, a devout Zoroastrian who has often led community prayers and who helped organize the event, led the audience through a 15 minute slide presentation, accompanied by his explanations, on the origins of the religion, the history of its expansion and then the migration of the majority of the adherents to escape Muslim persecution to neighboring India where even today, the largest number of them live in Mumbai.

Starting between 600 to 1,000 BC, the teachings of Zarathustra in the Old Avestan language, in what is now Tajikistan, found appeal due to its monotheism which merged the Spenta Mainyu (Progressive mentality) and Angra Mainyu (Destructive Mentality) under the Ahura Mazda (Illuminating Wisdom). This philosophy found great appeal in the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian empires in what was ancient Persia. Under Cyrus the Great, Zoroastrianism quickly spread and became the state religion. Dotiwala quickly went through the tenets and principles of the religion, how it is still practiced even as Zoroastrians have spread across the world and its chief symbols, fire and the Fravashi.

With the decline of the Sassanid Empire and the rise of Islam in the region, Zoroastrianism became marginalized and most of the followers fled to neighboring India, settling in the west coast. In India, they are referred to as Parsis (or people who speak Farsi or Persian), though most speak Gujarati as their mother tounge, and their largest concentration is in Mumbai. Dotiwala explained how many Zoroastrians have become world famous, like the late rock star Freddie Mercury of Queen, the late film actress Persis Khambata and the conductor Zubin Mehta; and dominant industrialists, like the Tata Group, and its head Ratan Tata.

The dialogue then started at each table, with discussions on the commonalities and differences between Zoroastrianism and other religions and ideas on how to illustrate the diversity of religions to the people of Houston. It was a lively and spirited hour-long discussion that prompted greater understanding, and helped to build trust, according to Han as he concluded the session. He urged the audience to support IMH in its various programs, like Meals on Wheels, “because hunger knows no religion” and said that IMH could lead the way because it knows how to reach the leaders of the different faiths in Houston.