Chicago--Mazda Antia, a 27-year-old attorney, is used to people asking if he's named after a car. "No, the God of the Zoroastrians," he tells them.

"Oh, you're from Jamaica," they say.

"I'm not Rastafarian," he responds. "I'm Zoroastrian."

Young Zoroastrians throughout the country often have a lot of explaining to do, Antia said at the North American Zoroastrian Congress, held last week in Chicago. One of the oldest monotheistic faiths, Zoroastrianism is also among the smallest, with an estimated 200,000 members worldwide, 20,000 of whom live in the United States and 700 of whom reside in the Chicago area.

Few people in this country have heard of their code of ethics, their prayers or fire ceremonies. Fewer know what it's like to be a young Zoroastrian living in the United States.

For four days at the conference, the children of Indian and Iranian immigrants talked about the challenge of preserving their ancient tradition. Is it enough to be born Zoroastrian or do they need to perform the rituals? Is intermarriage a sin or can they marry Christians or Jews without diluting the faith? And how can they best learn the central tenets of their tradition - and explain it to Americans who can't even pronounce it? "Once our parents are gone, are we going to keep the traditions alive and know what they mean?" said Negin Sharyari, 20, a student at the University of California at Irvine.

Zoroastrianism was founded about 1800 B.C. in Persia by the prophet Zarathushtra. The religion flourished through the rise and fall of many civilizations and became the state religion of the Great Persian Empire. After the Muslim invasion of Persia in 652 A.D., many Zoroastrians fled to India, where they became known as the Parsees. The first Zoroastrians from India migrated to the United States in the 1950s.

The religion teaches of one supreme God, Ahura Mazda ("Wise Lord") and stresses that people are granted freedom of choice and are responsible for their actions. The prophet encouraged his followers to develop the values of righteousness, service and devotion to attain perfection and immortality. Each individual is responsible for improving the lot of humanity rather than relying on an omnipotent God. "God needs us as much as we need God," Antiasaid.

Zoroastrians are encouraged to pray five times a day, to live in harmony with nature and to venerate all light and fire as symbols of God's creation and goodness. Their God is not to be feared but to be known as a friend and ally who can be served through a system of rational ethical norms rather than blind faith. Asceticism and celibacy are rejected for Zoroastrians, including priests.

Antia, who grew up going to the Zoroastrian Association of Chicago's center - one of two dozen in the United States - is a priest who wears white robes and performs initiations, marriages and funerals for the community in the presence of an eternal flame. At the age of 12, he told his father that he wanted to be a priest, so he went to India to participate in a 30-day ceremony.

When he returned, a public school teacher said he didn't understand how a boy so young could be a priest. "But for me it was very natural," he said. "This is what I was." It was just as natural to pursue a career in law, said Antia, who works as a law clerk for a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Antia hopes to encourage other young people to find a way to integrate their religious and secular lives, to learn the Zoroastrian philosophy and to teach it to others. "It's not just a matter of ritual," he said. "We need to know the message that impacts your daily life first."

Roshni Jamsetjee, 14, wears a daily reminder of the message. Under her Old Navy T-shirt, she wears a sudreh: a thin muslin garment with a pocket in the center to hold one's good deeds. That's in keeping with the religion's motto: "Good Thoughts. Good Words. Good Deeds." Wearing the sudreh in a school where everyone tries to be the same "means I'm proud of my religion," she said. Her friend Farrah Siganporia, 14, agreed: "We're not embarrassed of being different."

Darius Dadabhoy, a 28-year-old banker from Chicago, said that in any religious tradition, pride in one's culture does not always translate into understanding the rituals, such as the initiation ceremony in India he underwent at age 12.

He remembers sitting in a bathtub and wondering why someone had cracked an egg over his head - which turned out to be a Hindu tradition, not Zoroastrian. And he had no idea when he sipped consecrated bull's urine that it was part of a ancient Zoroastrian ritual of purification - since replaced by pomegranate juice in North America.

A youth session at the conference addressed issues of culture and identity. The audience applauded at statements supporting the practice of conversion, which is rejected in North America by some Zoroastrians. The young people also voiced enthusiasm for the possibility of intermarriage, a common occurrence among North American Zoroastrians, although Sharyari said many parents worry that intermarriage will dilute the faith.

Speakers stressed the importance of such gatherings as the conference and summer camps to educate Zoroastrian youth. Still, many people attending the conference said they came for the solidarity. It's about familiarity, said Dadabhoy: "You see 500 people who kind of look like you."

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