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Iranians celebrate ancient spring fire festival

TEHRAN, March 16 (AFP) - Tehran was rocked by the sound of firecrackers on Tuesday night as Iranians celebrated the ancient spring "Festival of Fire", which was officially authorised this year for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

All over the town, and in particular in the residential districts, groups of young people lit fires and set off highly explosive crackers as soon as night fell.

Several fire engines were seen racing through the streets, but no incidents were reported in the early evening.

The more than 2,000-year-old festival, held the final Tuesday before the Iranian new year on March 21, was given the green light a few days ago by the interior ministry, which urged participants to be "careful."

During the ancient rite people eat dried fruits and jump over fires to drive away evil spirits and cleanse their souls ahead of the new year.

But the festival has become part of general new year celebrations, and with the modern-day addition of firecrackers thrown at the fire-jumpers, dozens of people are wounded every year.

Fire is a symbol of God for the Zoroastrians, followers of Zoroaster, born around 550 B.C. in present-day Afghanistan.

Zoroastrianism was one of the first religions to conceive of an omnipotent God and keep eternal flames burning at their temples.

One such flame in the Iranian city of Yazd, the traditional centre of Iran's Zoroastrians, has been burning for more than 1,400 years.

Few Zoroastrians remain worldwide, and in Iran they are thought to number far less than one percent of the population of 60 million.

Shiite Moslem Iran had forbidden the festival since 1979, calling it "superstitious" and "anti-Islamic."


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