Mobed Rostam Shahzadi

Spiritual leader of Iran's Zoroastrians throughout the revolution

MOBED ROSTAM SHAHZADI, who has died in Teheran aged 88, was the leader of Zoroastrian believers in Iran.

Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia from the third to seventh centuries AD, when it was displaced by Islam. Its principles were articulated by the prophet Zoroaster --  more correctly Zarathushtra -- who lived from 628-551BC.

Divine revelation from Ahura Mazdah (the Wise Lord) led Zoroaster to create a religion which was among the first to be monotheistic. He also placed the distinction between truth and error - right and wrong - at the forefront of his beliefs, and held that man was free to choose between good and evil.

The religion developed greatly after the prophet's death, and its concepts of evil, of the immortality of the soul and of a resurrection of the body are thought by some to have exerted influence on Judaism when the Hebrews were exiled in Babylon in the sixth century BC.

Perhaps the best known Zoroastrian belief is that their dead should not be buried or cremated, lest that pollute the purity of the earth or the air. Traditionally, the dead were left for birds atop "towers of silence", although in practice most Zoroastrians are now buried in concrete-lined graves.

Zoroastrianism has at present no more than 125,000 adherents, among them the Parsi community in India. The late Freddie Mercury was born a Zoroastrian. It is still recognised - along with Christianity and Judaism - as one of Iran's three official minority religions. The community is represented in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, by its own MP.

Otherwise Iranian Zoroastrians have often been persecuted. Mobed Shahzadi waged a quiet and persistent campaign throughout his life to defend their rights, culture and religious freedom.

Rostam Dinyar Shahzadi was born in 1912 in the desert oasis of Yazd, central Iran, the country's traditional Zoroastrian stronghold, where there are today perhaps 30,000 believers. After primary education in Yazd, he taught traditional songs in a girls' school.

In 1925, when Shahzadi was a teenager, the Qajar monarchy was overthrown and Reza Khan assumed the rulership of Iran and the title of Shah. Petty discrimination that had restricted Zoroastrian life was eased, although Zoroastrians were still forbidden to handle food that would be eaten by Muslims, to ride horses, or to trade in the bazaar.

Reza Shah saw Zoroastrianism as a link with the splendours of Iran's imperial past. He adopted the Zoroastrian names for the months (which are still in use), and the first Zoroastrian deputy was elected.

In this more liberal climate, Shahzadi continued his education in Teheran at a Zoroastrian school, and later at the American College.

Zoroastrian priesthood is hereditary, and vested in the line of which Shahzadi was a member. At 16, later than the usual age, Shahzadi was sent to be trained in Bombay, at an institution maintained by Parsis. At 19, he was ordained at a ceremony at a fire temple or ateshkadé in Bombay.

After ordination, Shahzadi returned to Teheran, where he trained and practised as a lawyer, while at the same time teaching religion in Zoroastrian schools and officiating as a priest at a fire temple in Teheran. Because of his superior education and adroitness in representing Zoroastrian interests, he was nominated mobed-e mobedan, "priest of priests", the pre-eminent Zoroastrian divine in Iran.

He wrote several books on Iran's Zoroastrian heritage, including an analysis of the fall of the Zoroastrian Sassanid empire to Arab Muslim forces in 642 AD.

When Iran became an Islamic Republic in 1979, Shahzadi cultivated good relations with the Islamic theocrats who now governed the country, and was invited to represent the Zoroastrians in a constitutional convention.

He and his wife Daulat Lohrasb had a son, who was killed in the Iran-Iraq war, and a daughter.