In today’s age of personal freedoms, it is hard to believe that there are still 8 countries where religion is illegal.
In the last century, we have come a long way when it comes to personal freedoms, including freedom of religion. Throughout human history, persecution based on religious beliefs was a norm, with few exceptions. Rare were the rulers who didn’t feel the need to enforce their religion on its subject and even neighbors, guided by the Latin expression “Cuius regio, eius religio” (Whose realm, his religion). One of them was Indian King Ashoka, who permitted all religions in his realm. The other one was Genghis Khan. Surprisingly, one of the most ruthless rulers in history and creator of the second largest empire mankind has ever seen was very tolerant when it came to religion. As long as you were obedient and paid your taxes, you could believe in any god (or gods) you choose. However, the opposite was also true, if Mongols detected even a whiff of rebellion, no religion could save the offending party, as many of their subjects learned the hard way.
Unfortunately, the examples of extreme religious intolerance were by far more common in our past. Religious wars have affected the course of history profoundly. It was the rise of Islam that spurred the expansion of Muslim Caliphates, which at one point stretched from Iberian Peninsula to the outskirts of India and China and from Caucasus mountains to the Indian Ocean. The proclaimed goal of caliphs was to spread Islam and judging by the number of Muslims today, they did a great job.
Their conquests brought them to a collision with Christianity and planted the seeds for Crusades a few centuries later. Many argue that Crusades and their legacy and impact are, at least in part, responsible for today’s animosity between Muslims and the West. Whether you believe that or not, the fact remains that Crusades set a foundation for later European colonial empires and established the justification of spreading Christianity as an excuse to exploit countless nations and tribes in Africa, Asia, and Americas.
The rise of totalitarian regimes in early 20th century saw a sharp decline in religious freedom. Both communism and fascism were highly intolerant of religion, although Mussolini and Hitler managed to reach an agreement with Vatican. Jews weren’t so lucky and fell victim to one of the worst crimes in the history of humanity. In Soviet Russia, religion was considered an “opium for the people”, just one of the tools capitalists used to keep workers and peasants under control and was heavily persecuted during the Soviet era.
Today, it is widely accepted that religious freedoms are basic human rights and a vast majority of the planet accepts that. Unfortunately, the mere existence of this list proves that there are still places where religion is banned. It’s no coincidence that most, if not all, of these countries can also be found on the list of 25 least tolerant countries in the world. In some of these countries where religion is illegal not all faith is forbidden. Some allow the state religion to exist but are heavily persecuting all others. In some, all religions are equal on paper, but in practice there are severe penalties for those who are deemed a threat to the regimes in power. Our data came from Index on Censorship, a nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of expression, as well as US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report. In general, the countries on the list can be divided into two groups: the ones that are equally intolerant of all religious groups and the one ones that target selected groups. What they all have in common is that all of them can be considered totalitarian states to some degree and consider religion (or at least religious groups other than those they approve of) a threat. Now, let’s see the list of countries where religion is illegal.
There are only four religious groups that are allowed in Eritrea, according to the law: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. Temples and churches belonging to other groups are closed. Jehovah’s Witnesses are especially in a dire situation since they are stripped of their citizenship due to the refusal to serve in the army, based on their conscientious objections. Their members often face prison time and sometimes even torture for their refusal to bear arms.
Despite the fact that religious freedoms are enshrined in the country’s constitution, not all religions in Iran enjoy the same level of protection. While Jews and Christians aren’t outright persecuted or banned from practicing their faith, any proselytizing among Muslims is punishable. A conversion from Islam is punishable by death, according to the law. Members of the Baha’i faith are a different story though. The government doesn’t consider them a religious group, but rather a political organization and treats them accordingly. They are discriminated against when it comes to school enrollment as well as employment and are even excluded from Islamic Punishments Act blood money provisions, which details compensation for the death of a Muslim or non-Muslim. No blood money should be paid for the death of a Baha’i follower.
We are continuing our list of countries where religion is illegal with Sudan that implements one of the strictest Sharia norms in the world today. Among other things, Muslim women aren’t allowed to marry non-Muslims. There are reports of Christian female students sentenced to 20 lashes for wearing trousers, which are deemed indecent clothing for women under Sharia Law. Fortunately, the sentence wasn’t carried out, but it did serve its purpose of intimidating Christians. Members of smaller Muslim religious groups are also faced with threats, mostly because they can be charged with apostasy, which is punishable by death.
5. Saudi Arabia
The all-powerful Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is a body in charge of enforcing Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia, the number 5 on our list of countries where religion is illegal. The only allowed religion is Sunni Islam. All other religions are illegal and can only worship in private, as public practice is forbidden to all, except Sunni Muslims. The only religious buildings that can be built are mosques. The Committee, also known as the religious police, has had its powers curtailed lately, so they can’t arrest people on the street anymore for behavior they deem unacceptable under Sharia Law.
Burma is a rare example on our list of countries where religion is illegal where a Buddhist country persecutes other religions. Mostly, it is Muslims that are on the receiving end of the Burmese government religious intolerance. Some 800,000 of Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship and are exposed to violence that often equals pogroms against Jews in Europe. The sectarian clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 left many of them homeless and living in refugee camps, while the violence between them and the Buddhist periodically erupts almost annually. Christians are also persecuted and are often used as forced labor building Buddhist temples, while simulations churches and mosques are being torn down.
According to the International Religious Freedom Report issued by the State Department in 2015, a vast majority of Uzbeks are Muslims and the government intends to keep it so. In order to be allowed to exist and teach their doctrine, all religious groups must be registered with the Committee on Religious Affairs, a government body in charge of enforcing religious laws. One of the main issues that have sent many to prison camps is proselytizing. Several members of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been sent to prison for violating the ban on proselytizing, which is considered an “unauthorized religious activity”. Their offense was reading a Bible in a private home and talking about their religion. Other denominations suffer a similar fate, including several Islamic groups that are outright banned in Uzbekistan. And now, let’s see the top two entries on our list of countries where religion is illegal.
Officially, there are five government-sanctioned religious organizations in China, the number two on our list of countries where religion is illegal – Buddhist Association of China, Chinese Taoist Association, Islamic Association of China, Three-Self Patriotic Movement and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Unofficially, even those are often subject to government crackdowns and restrictions the moment they are suspected of not toeing the party line. Other groups fare far worse and face severe penalties if discovered. Just like many other oppressive regimes, Chinese government feels threatened by any organization that rivals its control of its citizens and has gone through great pains to ensure all of them are banned from the country, including the Vatican and Dalai Lama. Chinese officials consider Falun Gong especially dangerous and there are many cases of reported unlawful imprisonment, forced conversion, and torture of its practitioners. Their latest attempt to curb the rise of Muslims in Xinjiang region is a ban on certain Islamic names, like Muhammad.
1. North Korea
We end our list of 8 countries where religion is illegal with North Korea. Although the constitution says that religious expression is free, the regime doesn’t feel obliged to actually enforce it. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The only thing even remotely similar to religion that is allowed in North Korea is a worshipping of Kim dynasty and current supreme leader Kim Jong-un. Although we don’t get much information from the country, what can be gathered from occasional refugees that manage to slip past heavily guarded borders and people like John Sweeney, a British journalist that spent some time undercover in North Korea, doesn’t paint a pretty picture. One of the worst, if not the worst totalitarian regime on the planets treat its citizens very harshly. Some would say that lack of religious freedoms is the least of their problems and that hunger and political repression are far more damaging to an average citizen of North Korea. While that may be true, depending on your viewpoint, the country remains one of the worst places for any religion today.