Pew Research Centre
October 03, 2017
More than 80 countries favour a specific religion, either as an official, government-endorsed religion or by affording one religion preferential treatment over other faiths, according to a new Pew Research Centre analysis of data covering 199 countries and territories around the world.
Islam is the most common government-endorsed faith, with 27 countries (including most in the Middle East-North Africa region) officially enshrining Islam as their state religion. By comparison, just 13 countries (including nine European nations) designate Christianity or a particular Christian denomination as their state religion.
But an additional 40 governments around the globe unofficially favour a particular religion, and in most cases the preferred faith is a branch of Christianity. Indeed, Christian churches receive preferential treatment in more countries – 28 – than any other unofficial but favoured faith.
In some cases, state religions have roles that are largely ceremonial. But often the distinction comes with tangible advantages in terms of legal or tax status, ownership of real estate or other property, and access to financial support from the state. In addition, countries with state-endorsed (or “established”) faiths tend to more severely regulate religious practice, including placing restrictions or bans on minority religious groups.
In 10 countries, the state either tightly regulates all religious institutions or is actively hostile to religion in general. These countries include China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and several former Soviet republics – places where government officials seek to control worship practices and public expressions of religion.
Most governments around the globe, however, are generally neutral toward religion. More than 100 countries and territories included in the study have no official or preferred religion as of 2015. These include countries like the United States that may give benefits or privileges to religious groups, but generally do so without systematically favoring a specific group over others.
These are among the key findings of a new Pew Research Center analysis of country constitutions and basic laws as well as secondary sources from governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Research on this topic was conducted in tandem with the annual coding process for the Center’s study of global restrictions on religion (for details on this process, see the Methodology section of “Global Restrictions on Religion Rise Modestly in 2015, Reversing Downward Trend”).
States with an official religion confer official status on a particular religion in their constitution or basic law. These states do not necessarily provide benefits to that religious group over others. But, in most cases, they do favor the state religion in some way.
States with a preferred or favored religion have government policies or actions that clearly favor one (or in some cases, more than one) religion over others, typically with legal, financial or other kinds of practical benefits. These countries may or may not mention the favored religion in their constitution or laws; if they do, it is often as the country’s “traditional” or “historical” religion (but not as the official state religion). Some of these countries also call for freedom of religion in their constitutions – though, in practice, they do not treat all religions equally.
States with no official or preferred religion seek to avoid giving tangible benefits to one religious group over others (although they may evenhandedly provide benefits to many religious groups). For example, the U.S. government gives tax exemptions to religious organizations under rules that apply equally to all denominations. Many countries in this category have constitutional language calling for freedom of religion, although that language alone is not enough to include a country in this group; coders must determine that these countries do not systematically favor one or more religions over others.
States with a hostile relationship toward religion exert a very high level of control over religious institutions in their countries or actively take a combative position toward religion in general. Some of these countries may have constitutions that proclaim freedom of religion, or leaders who describe themselves as adherents of a particular religion, such as Islam. Nonetheless, their governments seek to tightly restrict the legal status, funding, clergy and political activity of religious groups.
This research is part of a broader effort to understand restrictions on religion around the world. For the past eight years, Pew Research Center has published annual reports analyzing the extent to which governments and societies around the world impinge on religious beliefs and practices. The studies are part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, which analyzes religious change and its impact on societies around the world. The project is jointly funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation.
More than one-in-five countries have an official state religion
In Afghanistan, for example, Islam is the official state religion, stated explicitly in the constitution: “The sacred religion of Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”3 The constitution also requires the president and vice president to belong to the state religion – as do some other countries – and other senior officials must swear allegiance to the principles of Islam in their oaths of office. Political parties’ charters must not run contrary to the principles of Islam, and the Ulema Council, a group of influential Islamic scholars, imams and jurists, meets regularly with government officials to advise on legislation.4 The constitution mandates that “No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.”
A slightly smaller share of countries (20%) have a preferred or favored religion. These are not official state religions, but may be listed in the constitution or laws as the country’s traditional, historical or cultural religion(s), and may receive benefits from the state that are not afforded to other religions.
One example of a preferred religion is Buddhism in Laos, where the constitution does not explicitly name Buddhism as an official state religion, but says: “The State respects and protects all lawful activities of Buddhists and of followers of other religions, [and] mobilizes and encourages Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in activities that are beneficial to the country and people.”5 In practice, the government sponsors Buddhist facilities, promotes Buddhism as an element of the country’s identity, and uses Buddhist ceremonies and rituals in state functions. Buddhism also is exempted from some restrictions that apply to other religious groups. For example, the government allows the printing, import and distribution of Buddhist religious material while restricting the publication of religious materials for most other religious groups.6
Elsewhere, a state may favor multiple religions while still providing added benefits to one religion in particular. For example, Russian law designates Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as the country’s “traditional” religions, while also recognizing the “special contribution” of Russian Orthodox Christianity to Russian history. The four traditional religions are given certain benefits: Students choosing to take a religious education course may choose between courses on the four traditional religions or a general course on world religions, and a government program funding military chaplains is restricted to chaplains of these four religions. Still, the Russian government shows preferential treatment to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in particular. For example, the government provided the ROC patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, and an investigation found that major presidential grants given to organizations controlled by or with ties to the ROC were a form of “hidden government support” for the church.7
A slim majority of countries (53%) have no official or preferred religion as of 2015. Within their borders, these countries treat different religions (e.g., Christianity, Islam) more or less equally, and their governments generally have a neutral relationship with religion.
Broadly, the countries in this category can be said to maintain a clear separation of church and state. But it is not necessarily the case that these countries avoid any promotion or restriction of religious practice. France, for instance, has no official or preferred religion, but it did have a “high” level of government restrictions on religion in 2015, according to Pew Research Center’s ongoing research on global religious restrictions. This stems in part from the banning of face coverings in public places, as well as incidents of government harassment of religious groups, including a case where a mayor announced a personally compiled list of “Muslim-sounding” names of schoolchildren in his town.8 (For more details on the correlation between state religions and government restrictions on religion, see below.)
A small share of countries (5%) have no official state religion or preferred religion but nonetheless maintain a highly restrictive or hostile relationship with some or all major religious groups in the country, strictly regulating religious institutions and practices. These are Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, North Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
China, for example, does not have an official state religion, nor does it have a preferred religion. Nor does it have a preferred or favored religion. Under its one-party political system, however, it has had a heavily restrictive or even hostile state relationship with religion, strictly regulating and monitoring religious institutions. China’s constitution says citizens have “freedom of religious belief,” but it also limits protections to “normal” religious activities.9 In practice, the state closely controls religious activity, and only five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” are allowed to register with the state and hold worship services. The state frequently detained, arrested or harassed members of both registered and unregistered religious groups in 2015.10
Several of the other countries in this category are former Soviet republics: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, religion was tightly restricted by the state and sometimes harshly repressed. Since gaining independence, these predominantly Muslim countries have allowed nominal freedom of worship, and many of their leaders have publicly embraced Islam. Yet their governments have continued to monitor and control religious institutions, including mosques and Muslim clergy.
Islam most common state religion; Christianity most commonly “favored” religion
Islam is the world’s most common official religion. Among the 43 countries with a state religion, 27 (63%) name Sunni Islam, Shia Islam or just Islam in general as their official faith.
Most of the countries where Islam is the official religion (16 of 27, or 59%) are in the Middle East and North Africa. In addition, seven officially Islamic countries (26%) are in the Asia-Pacific region, including Bangladesh, Brunei and Malaysia. And there are four countries in sub-Saharan Africa where Islam is the state religion: Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania and Somalia. No countries in Europe or the Americas have Islam as their official religion.
Christianity is the second most common official religion around the world. Thirteen countries (30% of countries with an official religion) declare Christianity, in general, or a particular Christian denomination to be their official state religion. Nine of these countries are in Europe, including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Monaco and Iceland. Two countries in the Americas – Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic – and one in the Asia-Pacific region – Tuvalu – have Christianity as their official state religion. Only one country in sub-Saharan Africa is officially Christian: Zambia.
Buddhism is the official religion in two countries, Bhutan and Cambodia. Israel is the only country in the world with Judaism as its official state religion.11 And no country names Hinduism as its official state religion – though India has a powerful Hindu political party, and Nepal came close to enshrining Hinduism in 2015, when the rejection of a constitutional amendment declaring Hinduism as the state religion led to a confrontation between pro-Hindu protesters and police.12
Among the 40 countries that have a preferred or favored religion – but not an official state religion – most favor Christianity. Twenty-eight countries (70%) have Christianity as the preferred religion, mostly in Europe and the Americas. Five countries in sub-Saharan Africa and three in the Asia-Pacific region have Christianity as the favored religion.
After Christianity, Buddhism is the next most commonly favored religion. All four countries with Buddhism as the favored religion – Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Mongolia and Sri Lanka – are in the Asia-Pacific region. Three countries – Sudan, Syria and Turkey – favor Islam but do not declare it as the state religion.
In some countries, multiple religions are favored to a similar extent by the state. Typically, the government describes these religions as “traditional” or part of the country’s historic culture. It may also provide these groups with legal or financial benefits, such as waiving the requirement to register as a religious group, providing funding or resources for religious education, or providing government subsidies. Five countries – Eritrea, Indonesia, Lithuania, Serbia and Togo – fit these criteria. By contrast, Russia recognizes multiple “traditional” religions, but favors Orthodox Christianity more than the others (see here for more information).
Half of states with official or preferred religions are in the Middle East or Europe
From a regional perspective, the Middle East-North Africa region has the highest share of countries with an official state religion as of 2015. Seventeen of the 20 countries that make up the region have a state religion – and in all of them except Israel, the state religion is Islam. Two others, Sudan and Syria, have a preferred or favored religion (in both cases, also Islam). Lebanon is the only country in the region without an official or favored religion, although key officials are elected or appointed based on religious affiliation (Sunni, Shiite, Maronite Catholic and other minority religious groups) under the terms of Lebanon’s 1943 National Pact, which is intended to distribute power among the country’s major religious sects.
Middle East-North Africa leads in share of official religions, Europe leads in preferred religions
Of the five regions examined in this study, Europe has the highest share of countries (30%) with a preferred or favored religion. All of these countries have Christianity as the favored religion.13 In Georgia, for example, the constitution reads: “The State shall declare absolute freedom of belief and religion. At the same time, the State shall recognize the outstanding role of the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia in the history of Georgia and its independence from the State.”14
In addition to recognition in the constitution, the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) and the state have a concordat, or constitutional agreement, that governs relations between them. The state does not have a concordat with any other religious group. Through the concordat, the GOC has rights not afforded to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the GOC patriarch and exemption from military service for GOC clergy. And unlike other religious organizations, the GOC is not required to pay a tax on profits from the sale of religious products, value-added taxes on religious imports, or taxes on activities related to the construction, restoration and painting of religious buildings.15
Nine countries in Europe (20%) have an official state religion as of 2015. These include Catholicism in the small states of Liechtenstein, Malta and Monaco; Lutheranism in Denmark, Iceland and Norway; Anglicanism in the United Kingdom; and Orthodox Christianity in Greece and Armenia.16 Altogether, Europe and the Middle East-North Africa region contain 42 countries with either official (26) or preferred (16) religions – together they make up roughly half of all the countries in the world in these categories combined.
Meanwhile, three-quarters of countries in sub-Saharan Africa (75%) have no official or favored state religion, the highest share of any region. Seven sub-Saharan countries (15%) have a favored religion, while five (10%) have an official state religion: Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia and Zambia. Zambia is the only one of the five that declares Christianity to be its state religion; the other four are officially Islamic. The constitution of Djibouti, for example, names Islam as “the Religion of the State,” and all other religious groups are required to register with the Ministry of Interior, which requires a lengthy background investigation of each group.17
In the Asia-Pacific region, 10 countries (20%) have an official state religion, and nine countries (18%) have a preferred or favored religion. While 44% of Asia-Pacific countries have no official or favored religion, the region has the highest share of countries (18%) with a hostile relationship with religion. Tajikistan’s constitution, for example, does not recognize a state religion and allows individuals to adhere to any religion.18 In practice, however, the government keeps tight control over religious institutions. It restricts Muslim prayer to certain locations, regulates mosques and bars children (those under 18) from participating in public religious activities. Imams must be approved by the Committee on Religious Affairs, and the content of their sermons is controlled. The government also reportedly has surveillance cameras at mosques, and donations to mosques by individuals are banned.19
One country in the Americas, Cuba, has a heavily restrictive relationship with religion. But roughly seven-in-ten countries in the region (69%) have no official or favored religion. Eight countries in the Americas (23%) have a favored religion, while two – Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic – have Catholicism as the official state religion.
Having an official religion often translates to practical benefits
In a few cases, a country’s official religion is primarily a legacy of its history and now involves few, if any, privileges conferred by the state. And a few other countries fall at the other end of the spectrum, making their official religion mandatory for all citizens.
Much more frequently, however, states with official religions do not make the religion mandatory, but do give it more benefits than other religions, and those states typically regulate other religious groups in the country. More than half (53%) of the 43 countries with official religions meet these criteria. These countries still provide “freedom of religion” on some level – they allow worship by members of other religions, though they give the official religion more benefits or make benefits more readily available to it.
Most of the countries with official religions in the Middle East-North Africa region (59%) have this type of arrangement. In Jordan, for example, Islam is the state religion, and converts from Islam to Christianity were occasionally questioned and scrutinized by security forces in 2015. Non-Muslim religious groups must register to be able to own land and administer rites such as marriage. They are tax exempt, but do not receive subsidies. In contrast, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs manages Islamic institutions, subsidizes certain mosque-sponsored activities, pays mosque staff salaries and manages clergy training centers.20
In addition, among countries with official religions, three-in-ten (30%) give more benefits to the state religion while also creating an especially harsh environment for other religions (beyond basic regulation of those groups). In these countries, adherence to the official religion is not mandatory, but other religions are not given the same benefits and their activities are sometimes heavily restricted by the government. Most of these countries are in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East-North Africa regions.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and the official interpretation of sharia.21 Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews are the only recognized religious minority groups, as well as the only non-Muslim groups allowed to worship as long as they do not proselytize. Public religious expression, persuasion or conversion by these groups is punishable by death. Non-recognized religious groups, like Baha’i, are not free to practice their religion, and even the recognized groups’ activities are closely monitored.22
In a small minority of countries, the official religion is largely ceremonial or it receives some benefits along with its official status. Other religions in the country, however, may be given similar benefits. Among the 43 countries with official state religions, only three – all in Europe – meet these criteria: Liechtenstein, Malta and Monaco.
Monaco, for example, designates Roman Catholicism as the state religion in its constitution: “The Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion is the religion of the State.”23 Catholic religious instruction is available in schools, but requires parental consent. And while Catholic rituals play a part in some state ceremonies, the law also designates that no one may be compelled to participate in the rites or ceremonies of any religion or to observe its days of rest.24
There also are four states with an official religion – in each case, Islam – that make adhering to that religion mandatory for their citizens: Comoros, Maldives, Mauritania and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s basic law designates Islam as the official religion, and conversion from Islam is grounds for charges of apostasy – legally punishable by death.25 The basic law requires all citizens to be Muslim, and public worship of non-Muslim faiths is prohibited. While non-Muslims are allowed to worship in private, the government does not always respect this right and has raided such meetings of non-Muslims and detained or deported participants.26