Orville Hector | Daily TidingsZoroastrian Russy Sumariwalla and his Christian wife, Anita, display one of her paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. The retired couple have been married for 42 years. Russy, born in India, is a retired consultant to the United Nations. Anita, born in Switzerland as a U.S. citizen, is a prolific painter. The couple lives in the Rogue Valley.For more photos see the

Christmas (derived from the Catholic term "Mass of Christ" or "Christ Mass") is the time of year when the birth of Jesus Christ emerges as a predominant theme amid fantasy tales of Santa's world travels via the magic of flying reindeer.

Yet, behind the facade of Nativity scenes &

when the Christ child is said to have been visited by nearby shepherds, and wise men from the east bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh &

there exists another story seldom told. This story reveals more about the biblical account of the wise men, also known as Magi, and takes truth-seekers on a journey into the realm of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism that relatively few Christians have embarked.

From India to Oregon

In the Rogue Valley there exists a crossroads of the two worlds of Zoroastrianism and Christianity in the marriage of Russy and Anita Sumariwalla. Russy, 73, was born in Bombay, India (now Mumbai) to a family of Zoroastrians (known in India as Parsis). He was initiated into the religion at age 8 in a traditional ceremony in the Fire Temple (fire is symbolic of God's light).

Russy's subsequent illustrious career with the United Way, and as a consultant to the United Nations, took him to many countries and cultures around the globe. Although he married a Switzerland-born American Christian, he continued his daily devotions to Zoroastrianism. But with more practicing Zoroastrians marrying outside the faith, a standing rule against proselytizing, and most priests forbidding conversions to the faith (family lineage is key) the numbers have dwindled over the centuries.

"There are only about 75,000 of us in India now," Russy said. Worldwide, maybe 125,000 to 150,000, perhaps. Nobody knows the exact number. That's the problem. We are kind of a vanishing species."

Ancient beliefs

Zoroastrianism is widely regarded by many religious scholars as one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions. Followers revere the prophet Zarathustra (a.k.a. Zoroaster) who worshipped the uncreated creator of all things, Ahura Mazda.

Although some Christians bristle at the thought of a religious overlapping with Zoroastrianism, the Catholic Church acknowledges, in its encyclopedia New Advent, scholarly research that concludes the visitors to the Christ child from the east mentioned in the book of Matthew (speculative numbers of the visitors range from two to 12, though the bible fails to mention any number) were neither kings nor magicians, but rather priests of a popular Persian religious order.

"These Magians can have been none other than members of the priestly caste already referred to [Medes]. The religion of the Magi was fundamentally that of Zoroaster and forbade sorcery; their astrology and skill in interpreting dreams were occasions of their finding Christ."

Migration

Today, Iran and India are the nations where most Zoroastrians reside. It is estimated several thousand exist in the United States. With the rise of Islam in Persia during the 7th century, many Zoroastrians fled the empire (which then encompassed Afghanistan and Pakistan) to India.

"A lot of [the history] is word of mouth," Russy said. "But there is some evidence that in the 7th century A.D. a few Zoroastrians came to the west coast of India and asked for political asylum. They were accepted into the community and from there on worked hard and prospered. Today, they are a small, but very successful community mostly professional people."

Both Russy and his wife, Anita &

who have been married 42 years &

exemplify the success typical of the average Zoroastrian family. Although retired, Russy is the president of the United Nations Association of the U.S.A., Southern Oregon, which was responsible for sponsoring United Nations Day held at Southern Oregon University in the fall. The organization also brought former Secretary of Defense, William Perry to speak in Ashland. Anita is an accomplished painter who enjoys recreating famous art pieces, as well as her own creations depicting the Virgin Mother and the Christ Child.

Ancient code

Short audio clips of the interview with Russy and Anita Sumariwalla —

About



Growing up in a family of Zoroastrians.



Zoroastrian beliefs:



Zoroastrian language:



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Zoroastrian



Russy and Anita live by a code of conduct that reflects the foundation of Zoroastrian belief.

"The basic tenets are: good words, good thoughts and good deeds," says Russy, who cautions that he is a layman, not religious clergy. The many varied practices of Zoroastrianism today were not derived from the prophet Zarathrustra, Russy said. Rather, they evolved from the practices and customs of the priests who followed.

Like most Christians who believe in the Bible, there exists one primary source for Zoroastrians seeking understanding and fulfillment in the written word. It's called the Avesta, which contains Gathas (prayers and hymns). Russy reads his Gathas daily beside lit candles &

a reminder of "Asha," which can be symbolic of several things: the original light of God, the right order of all things, and righteousness.

The Catholic encyclopedia states: "The Avesta system may be best defined as monotheism modified by a physical and moral dualism, with an ethical system based on a Divinely revealed moral code and human free will."

Celebration

For Zoroastrians, the biggest celebration comes on the first day in spring (March 21) and is celebrated with the Iranians.

"That's called NoRouz (New Day)," Russy said. "It's a big festival in Iran, but we celebrate that too."

Although Russy and Anita live in Medford, they are friends with an Ashland couple that also practices Zoroastrianism. That couple declined to have their names publicized. Russy and Anita will leave next week for a monthlong trip to India, during which Russy will participate in an initiation celebration of a family member.

For more photos, including Anita's paintings, visit the .

is the Content Editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 482-3456 x223 or .