2003 – Under-Told Stories Project

Under-Told Stories Project


India’s Zoroastrians

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Jashan or thanksgiving ceremony is one of few Parsi rituals that can be witnessed by outsiders.

But it’s not hard to witness the impact this small community has had in India, especially its commercial capital. Parsis are leaders of business and industry, science and philanthropy, even music. Former New York Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta is a Parsi from Bombay.

The growth of Islam in what is now Iran drove a die-hard Zoroastrian community to seek refuge in western India around 900 A.D. They became known as Parsis, or people from Persia.

Oblivious to the chaotic street, they come to pray at the sacred well. Parsis honor the skies, water, earth and plants which, with cattle and humans, are six of the seven creations of Ahura Mazda—the one God.

Professor KHOJESTE MISTREE (Zoroastrian Scholar): We believe that fire is the seventh creation which Ahura Mazda created, and when Ahura Mazda created fire, life came into the other six creations, and in our prayers we actually address fire as the son of God.

DE SAM LAZARO: Parsi houses of worship are called fire temples. Non-Parsis are not permitted inside, where priests pray and maintain the fires. Also off-limits to all but official pallbearers are the unusual disposal rites for the dead.

Prof. MISTREE: This happens to be a place called Karighat Colony, very close to our “towers of silence,” which are in the distance. This wonderful greenery that you see is part of our sacred precinct.

DE SAM LAZARO: Shrouded from view by the trees and strictly off-limits are towers of silence—26-foot cylindrical buildings like these on whose roofs the dead are placed, to be devoured by birds.

Professor Khojeste Mistree, Zoroastrian Scholar
Prof. MISTREE: We believe that when a person dies, the corpse is deemed to be defiled, and because it is defiled, we cannot burn it because that is desecrating fire; we cannot bury it because that is polluting the earth. We cannot drown the corpse because that is sullying the waters. So, the only method that is available by way of disposal is the exposure method, because death in Zoroastrianism is seen as the temporary triumph of evil, not the work of God.

DE SAM LAZARO: Temporary until the day of resurrection and judgment. Heaven can be attained if one’s good thoughts and deeds outnumber the bad. Zoroastrian beliefs come from the teachings of Zarathustra, the Persian prophet who lived at least 1,500 years before the Christian era. It is the religion of the ancient Persian Empire, whose kings—like Darius, Xerxes and Cyrus—were known for tolerance and praised in the Old Testament for their warm relations with the Jews.

Prof. MISTREE: Cyrus was a remarkable king; he is reputed to have liberated the Jews from Babylonian captivity. He encouraged them to go back to Palestine to rebuild their Temple, and subsequently Darius the Great and Xerxes—and this is all recorded in the Old Testament—gave Persian moneys to actually rebuild the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

DE SAM LAZARO: Persia was the home of the Magi, the biblical Three Kings who greeted the infant Jesus but who, Parsis say, actually came in search of a Zoroastrian Messiah.

Prof. MISTREE: And, it is now believed by most Western scholars that the concept of an afterlife, the concept of heaven and hell, the concept of the coming of the Messiah, the concept of the Last Judgment and the Resurrection, these are mainstream Zoroastrian eschatological tenets.

DE SAM LAZARO: Even though Parsis have prospered in India, their numbers are dwindling. Few couples have more than one child.

Also, many Parsis have dispersed abroad, and they’ve married outside the community. For Firuza Parikh, a leading Indian endocrinologist, it means her children are no longer considered Parsis.

Dr. FIRUZA PARIKH (Endocrinologist): I was pregnant with my first child, and I am quite a devout Parsi. I go to the fire temple maybe once a month—once in two months. That was an auspicious day, and I wanted to visit the fire temple, and my mother said, “You can’t right now because you’re carrying a child who technically is not a Parsi,” and that pained me to know that perhaps I would not be able to teach my religion to my children. But that did pass.

Dr. Firuza ParikhDE SAM LAZARO: At the same time, her parents did not object to her marriage to a non-Parsi. With no Sabbath, simple rituals, and the objective of gently promoting harmony in public life, Zoroastrians say they are inherently tolerant and ecumenical. So far, however, Parsi leaders have resisted allowing children of mixed heritage like Parikh’s into the fold.

Dr. PARIKH: I think we should be allowed to have this option, because if we really want our community to proliferate, one of the ways is to accept people from other religions into our fold, be more secular in our thinking. We’re very broad-minded in another sense, but I think in this particular sense we have a narrow vision, and perhaps that may be the reason why we are dwindling.

Prof. MISTREE: I am dead against that …

DE SAM LAZARO: Mistree, the Zoroastrian scholar, is convinced the community can survive ethnically intact.

Prof. MISTREE: But, it is very important for us to recognize that the spirituality of the faith is linked to its roots and, therefore, I’m a great believer in the “live and let live” policy. Namely, that if for 3,000 years the paradigm shows us that the Parsis and the Iranis have managed to keep this wonderful religion alive, then I’m of the view that these people should be allowed and, in fact, encouraged to preserve their heritage, to preserve their ethnicity, to preserve their religion, because it is a beautiful religion to preserve.

DE SAM LAZARO: Preserving old customs has its modern day challenges for a community with far more members in geriatric rather than maternity wards. Parsi families are now offered scholarships and subsidized housing if they have more children—a rare policy in one of the world’s most populous nations to preserve one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Bombay.


Gandhi’s Violins

A report on how a Jesuit priest is fighting generational poverty with violins in the remote Himalayan foothills of India.

No transcript is available.


Garment Quotas in Cambodia

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Cambodia is one of the word’s poorest countries. It is still feeling the impact of the war in Southeast Asia and of genocide in the ’70s that claimed up to two million lives, perhaps a fifth of the entire population. About eight years ago, Cambodia began a comeback, centered largely on making garments for the American and European markets.

Clothing exports now bring in about 80 percent of Cambodia’s export earnings. But all that could change beginning in January when a new free trade system takes effect. Jan. 1 will mark the end of an elaborate system of quotas, first designed to protect U.S. jobs but which also guaranteed Cambodia and other nations space on American clothing racks. Sebastien Teunissen is a business professor at the University of California Berkeley.

SEBASTIAN TEUNISSEN: It’s not one quota per country. It’s, in fact, one co-a for each type of garment. So there’s quotas for socks, there’s quotas for pants, shirts and so on. It’s a very, very complex set of numbers. I think it’s well over a thousand different limits when you look at the number of countries and garments involved.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The end of the quota system is welcome at retailers like San Francisco-based Gap. It imports a billion pieces of apparel from 50 countries each year for its Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Gap stores. Gap’s Dan Henkle says quotas have complicated life for the company’s buyers.

DAN HENKLE, Gap: You might have a product category that you… you would ideally like to place with one vendor, one factory. But maybe because of quota restrictions you have to split that order apart. And you might have 10 percent over here and 50 percent over here. And I think in a post-quota environment, you’re going to see that we are going to be able to consolidate some of that… some of those orders and overall I think that will lead to greater efficiency.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It is also expected to lead to major changes in where clothing is made. Over the past 40 years, the U.S. has set aside rack space for many developing nations from Mongolia to Lesotho to Cambodia. Experts say countries with large industrial bases and labor pools especially China, could now dominate. That could cost millions of jobs in the smaller nations. Jobs critical to most countries, says Professor Teunissen.

SEBASTIAN TEUNISSEN: It’s not stated so obviously but it’s considered in a way to be foreign aid. That is by granting quotas to less developed countries, you’re giving them the opportunity to establish production facilities there, employ people, generate incomes, generate foreign exchange and it’s viewed as therefore helping the economy of that particular country grow.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: With Cambodia U.S. officials used the quota system to address widespread concern over child labor and other abuses in factories overseas. In 1999, the U.S. offered Cambodia a deal. It would increase its imports of Cambodian garments; in exchange, Cambodia would have to improve working conditions in its factories, introduce a minimum wage, recognize unions and open its factories to international inspectors. Cambodia’s commerce minister, Cham Prasidh, negotiated with the U.S. He says almost overnight a garment industry still in its infancy took off.

CHAM PRASIDH, Minister of Commerce, Cambodia: Since 1996 until this year, it’s almost eight years the number of factories have grown from zero to over two hundred factories. Actually, they are employing about 235,000 workers.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For 21-year-old Nou Yath and her 20-year-old sister, Nou Charya, factory work has meant escape from life at subsistence levels at street vendors.

NOU CHARYA: We make good money in the factory. We can make as much as $70 a month. We share our money with our mother and it allows our younger brother to attend school.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Life here is Spartan by any account. The sisters share a 100-square-foot room with two others. There’s little margin for luxuries. $70 may seem meager, especially since it includes overtime pay, but it’s still twice what an average civil servant earns in Cambodia.

At the factory, these women — and most workers are young women — are guaranteed a minimum wage: $45 a month. They are represented by a union and work in a well-ventilated space. Factories that violate labor standards can lose their export licenses and the International Labor Organization– a U.N. agency– is free to visit unannounced. While it’s hard to monitor all factories, the ILO’s Ros Harvey is encouraged so far.

ROS HARVEY: We’re seeing that basically child labor has effectively been eliminated from the industry. There’s no forced labor. There is also, I think, the freedom to organize.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And, she says, from all indications, the improvements do not cost the bottom line.

ROS HARVEY: We’re finding that it’s not a tradeoff. That you can improve working conditions and at the same time improve profitability, quality and productivity.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The problem is Cambodia’s costs are still 25 percent higher than China’s. Unlike China, Cambodia has to import its textiles and raw materials. The transportation system isn’t as good. It’s also slowed down by corruption and red tape in a business where timely deliveries are critical. On the top floors and in worker homes, there’s great anxiety.

NOU CHIA (translated): We’ve heard rumors that they might be closing factories. We’re really worried.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Plant closings would also dash the hopes of their 17-year-old sister who plans to find factory work when she comes of age. For young, uneducated women, there are few other places to find work. For many, commercial sex districts are a desperate last resort. For his part, Cambodia’s commerce minister says his country can retain its customers, even get new ones by branding itself as the socially responsible place to buy garments.

CHAM PRASIDH: We try to develop a new image of Cambodia as a safe haven for the major brand names in the world. We guarantee that any garment or apparel that we produce from Cambodia are not from sweatshops.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That’s certainly attracted the Gap, which buys almost a third of all Cambodian garments. In the ’90s, Gap was the target of protests over its alleged use of sweatshop suppliers.

PROTESTERS: Living wages we demand!

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Gap acknowledges there were and still are problems. It says it’s working to police factory conditions. It has a staff of some 100 labor compliance inspectors. While cost is critical in choosing suppliers, the company says it also factors in social issues. So Dan Henkle, who is vice president of compliance, says in recognition of its progress, Gap will continue to do business in Cambodia.

DAN HENKLE: We are making an investment in this. And certainly if you’re holding vendors accountable for paying overtime premiums and wages and so on and so forth, the appropriate wages, there’s a cost associated with that, but you have to look at this in terms of the benefit as well, the benefits on productivity and quality and overall reliability.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Several other retailers who buy in Cambodia have said they plan to continue. The approach may also carry a positive marketing message, but UC Berkeley’s Teunissen wonders how long the buyers can keep their pledge.

SEBASTIAN TEUNISSEN: In the short run, those are probably honest statements. But in the long run, the realities of the marketplace may force them to reconsider it. If the competitors have moved to China as their sole source of supply are able to undercut them in price, then they may have to do so as well.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: To make its clothing cheaper, Cambodian officials will soon ask the U.S. to add Cambodia to a list of African countries which are allowed to export goods to the U.S. without the tariffs normally charged to other nations, including China.


U.S. Initiatives Fight AIDS in Haiti

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, also has one of the highest AIDS infection rates. The problem could have been a lot worse if not for the work of two innovative doctors at the Gheskio Center in the capital Port Au Prince and a rural project run by the Partners in Health.

No transcript is available.



People in Duluth are finally coming to terms with a crime that was committed in 1920. Three young black men were lynched by an angry mob over the alleged rape of a white girl. They are erecting a monument to publicly acknowledge this dark historical event.

No transcript is available.


After the War in Bosnia

Bosnia is beginning to return to normal after its intense conflict that gave birth to the phrase “ethnic cleansing.” The signs of the war are still present as some of the only construction projects underway repair of churches based on foreign aid and the building of new cemeteries for the dead. There were an estimated 1 million displaced during this conflict but they have slowly been returned to their homes, or what is left of them, largely without incidence. There is still a lot of healing to be done though. Some of the worst war criminals have yet to be found and mass graves are still being excavated.

No transcript is available.


A Church’s Choice Part I

The possible election of an openly homosexual bishop has created a deep division in the Anglican Church. There are those who see no problem with his sexuality and look only at his record while there are those who say that he should not be a bishop specifically because of his sexuality. His election has drawn threats of division from other national Churches.

No transcript is available.


A Church’s Choice Part II

This is the second part of this series looking at the possible Anglican confirmation of an openly homosexual bishop. This report looks more deeply into the various groups that are involved in making the decisions and some of the different opinions.


No transcript is available.


India’s AIDS Epidemic

Treating AIDS has proven to be difficult in India. Many in government deny that AIDS is that significant of a problem in India and downplay the number of infect citizens. This even extends to aid money being given to the country. When Bill Gates offered to give the country $100 million to fight AIDS, the money was accepted but Gates was also accused of overstating the problem.

No transcript is available.


Prison Ministry

A prison in Texas has adopted a program that uses bible study as a way to help convicts reform their ways and keep from committing more crimes. The program has been criticized by some groups though because it uses a very specific type of Christianity and does not offer any other kind of denominational support.

No transcript is available.


Subsidy Struggle

The issue of cotton subsidies has been a hot topic at the WHO for years. Complaints raised by a number of African countries claim that the US subsidies are depressing global cotton prices and costing farmers in these developing nations millions of dollars.

No transcript is available.