Zoroastrians Gather in Central Iran

CHAKCHAK, Iran (AP) - Dressed in light colors to symbolize purity, thousands of Iranian Zoroastrians gathered at the mountainous Chakchak temple in central Iran for a five-day pilgrimage to celebrate one of the world's oldest religions.

Five thousand Iranian Zoroastrians and 100 co-religionists from abroad are concluding the fourth of five days of religious ceremonies that predate Islam. Some 135,000 Zoroastrians - more than half of the world's estimated total of 212,000 - live in Iran.

Chakchak, about 250 miles southeast of Tehran, is home to a sacred well used for prayers and a holy tree, known as "The Cane of the Good Lady."

Pilgrims hope to purify themselves and to have their prayers answered at the temple, among the most sacred of Zoroastrian sites.

The main tenets of the religion are written on the main gate of the temple: "Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds."

Despite its few adherents in modern-day, overwhelmingly Muslim Iran, Zoroastrianism continues to have a strong influence on national custom. The religion is named after its prophet Zoroaster, or Zarathustra.

Iranians celebrate the New Year in March with the Chahar-Shanbe Suri, or the Wednesday Feast, by lighting bonfires, firecrackers and dancing in the streets, hoping to put failures behind them and start the new year with prosperity.

On the longest night of the year, Iranians buy fruit, nuts and other goodies to mark the feast of Yalda, an ancient tradition when families get together and stay up late, swapping stories and munching on snacks.

Both celebrations have Zoroastrian roots and are frowned upon by Islamic hard-liners who say the ceremonies contradict Islamic traditions.

The central theme of Zoroastrianism is the struggle between the good Ahura Mazda and the evil Ahriman, a belief that is thought to have influenced later religions from Judaism to Islam.

The belief in a messiah, which Zoroaster taught would come to save the world, also is thought to have been taken by later religions.

AP-NY-06-17-01 1457EDT

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.