Islam Is the Most Popular Official Religion, But Even More Countries Give Christianity Preferential Treatment

Nearly half of the countries in the world have an official religion, have a preferred faith or are hostile to religious institutions, Pew Research Center research finds.

Islam is the most common official religion, with 27 countries naming Sunni Islam, Shia Islam or Islam in general as their official faith, Pew data shows. An additional 13 countries name some form of Christianity as their official faith, two name Buddhism and just one, Israel, names Judaism. Christianity is the most frequent preferred religion, with 28 countries favoring the faith or a certain denomination of it over others, while three name Islam, four name Buddhism and the remainder name multiple religions.

The Pew Research Center analyzed 2015 data on 199 countries, including their constitutions and basic laws as well as other governmental and nongovernmental sources, and published its findings on Tuesday. The analysis found 43 countries (22 percent) have an official state religion, 40 countries (20 percent) have a favored or preferred faith and 10 countries (five percent) are hostile to religious institutions of all faiths. Just more than half, 106 countries (53 percent), have no official or preferred religion, including the United States. 

10_04_Saudi_Arabia_Hajj Muslim worshippers gather for prayer on August 31, 2017, ahead of the climax of hajj. Clad in white, their the palms facing the sky, some two million Muslims from around the world gathered on Saudi Arabia's Mount Arafat for the highlight of the hajj pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia is one of just four countries around the world where an official religion is mandatory. Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

There is not one set definition or archetype for what it looks like to have an official or preferred religion. There are extremes—on one end of the spectrum the designation is mostly ceremonial and followers of the faith are treated pretty much the same as other groups (Liechtenstein, Malta and Monaco) and on the other, a religion is mandatory (Comoros, Maldives, Mauritania and Saudi Arabia all make Islam mandatory). Elsewhere, there are countries that give special benefits to the official faith (such as funding for religious activities, land and education) and either regulate other groups or create a harsh environment for them. Jordan’s official religion, for example, is Islam, and it subsidizes certain mosque activities and manages Islamic institutions, while other groups must register to own land or perform marriage and other rites.

Countries with preferred religions often also disproportionately fund religious activities, land or education for the favored faith, but are more likely than those with official religions to offer similar benefits to other religions. In Laos, for example, the government sponsors Buddhist facilities and uses Buddhist rituals in state ceremonies. It allows the printing, import and distribution of Buddhist religious material, whereas other groups are restricted from doing the same. Russia names Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as “traditional” religions, but recognizes the “special contribution” of Russian Orthodox Christianity to Russian history and gives the church special benefits beyond what the other three religions receive (such as giving its patriarch security and access to official vehicles).

Ten countries—Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, North Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam—have no official or preferred religion but severely restrict and/or have a highly contentious relationship with religious groups. China, for example, says in its constitution that citizens have “freedom of religious belief,” but in reality its one-party political system scrutinizes religious activity very closely. There are five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” that can hold worship services. Still, the country detained, arrested or harassed those and unregistered religious groups frequently.

The United States is part of the slight majority of countries that are generally neutral toward religion, according to Pew, since although it may give benefits to religious groups, it doesn’t privilege any one group over another.

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