July 22, 2014

In 30 countries, heads of state must belong to a certain religion

Most countries with religious requirements for heads of state are in the Middle East and North Africa

A new Pew Research analysis finds that 30 of the world’s countries (15%) belong to a unique group of nations that call for their heads of state to have a particular religious affiliation. From monarchies to republics, candidates (including descendants of royal monarchies) in these countries must belong to a specific religious group.

This list includes Lebanon, which requires its president to be a member of the Maronite Christian Church. On Wednesday, Lebanon’s parliament will make a ninth attempt since May at filling the office.

List of countries where the law requires a head of state to be of a certain religion.More than half of the countries with religion-related restrictions on their heads of state (17) maintain that the office must be held by a Muslim. In Jordan, for example, the heir to the throne must be a Muslim child of Muslim parents. In Tunisia, any Muslim male or female voter born in the country may qualify as a candidate for president. Malaysia, Pakistan and Mauritania also restrict their heads of state to Muslim citizens.

Two countries, Lebanon and Andorra, require their heads of state to have a Christian affiliation. Lebanon also has a religious requirement of its prime minister, who must be a Sunni Muslim.

Two other countries require the heads of their monarchies be Buddhist: Bhutan and Thailand. And one country, Indonesia, requires the official state belief in Pancasila to be upheld by its head of state. Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country; Pancasila is a summation of “common cultural elements” of Indonesia, including belief in God.

A handful of countries do not require a particular religious affiliation for heads of state, but do limit candidates for the office to laypersons. Eight countries, including Bolivia, Mexico and El Salvador, specifically prohibit clergy from running in presidential elections. In Burma (Myanmar), the president is prohibited from being a member of a religious order.

Countries where the head of state is a ceremonial monarch.In addition to the 30 countries in this analysis, another 19 nations have religious requirements for ceremonial monarchs who serve as their heads of state. Sixteen of these, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are members of the Commonwealth of Nations with Queen Elizabeth II – also known as the Defender of the Faith – as their head of state. The other countries in this category are Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Most of the world’s countries (85%) allow citizens of any religious affiliation to be head of state. In the United States, the Constitution specifically prohibits any kind of “religious test” as a qualification for holding federal or state public office. At the same time, a number of states still have laws on the books prohibiting nonbelievers from holding office. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion clearly prohibits states from requiring office-holders to profess a belief in God.

This analysis was conducted through a coding of country constitutions – or basic law – and through reference to official country-specific government websites. Download the data used in this analysis here.

Topics: Religion and Government, Religion and Politics, Religion and Society, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Restrictions on Religion

  1. is a Research Assistant at the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project.

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36 Comments

  1. Pew-is-wrong4 months ago

    PEW is wrong about UK.
    The offical website of the Crown (www.royal.gov.uk) states: “The end of the Stuart line with the death of Queen Anne led to the drawing up of the Act of Settlement in 1701, which provided that only Protestants could hold the throne.” This is what Head of State does.
    and also it explains that the Monarch opens and dissolves the Parliment and approves laws passed. This means that Pew did not properly categorized UK, and it should be listed along Andora and Lebanon as requiring by law Christina religion from the Head of State

    Reply
    1. Angelina Theodorou4 months ago

      Thanks for your comment, we chose to include the Queen of England as a ceremonial head of state because her role is largely ceremonial (royal.gov.uk/MonarchUK/TheMonarc… ). With regard to the Queen’s activity in UK Parliament, “the Crown opens Parliament through the State Opening (marking the beginning of the Parliamentary year).” However, the Queen “only dissolves Parliament before a general election under conditions laid out in the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011” (parliament.uk/about/how/role/par… ) The Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011, removed the authority of the Crown (in practice the PM) from being able to choose when to dissolve parliament and call for a general election. The Act repealed past laws on the dissolution of Parliament and established a fixed term – general elections must be held every five years. Additionally, “There are two provisions that trigger an election other than at five year intervals: A motion of no confidence is passed in Her Majesty’s Government by a simple majority and 14 days elapses without the House passing a confidence motion in any new Government formed” or “A motion for a general election is agreed by two thirds of the total number of seats in the Commons including vacant seats (currently 434 out of 650)” (parliament.uk/about/how/election… ). The Queen’s other role in Parliament includes the Royal Assent, when, after Parliament passes legislation, “the Queen formally agrees to make the bill into an Act of Parliament (law).” According to the Monarchy’s description of the Queen’s role in Parliament, the Royal Assent is carried out “on the advice of Ministers”- and not a single piece of legislation has been refused since 1707. (royal.gov.uk/MonarchUK/QueenandG… ; parliament.uk/about/how/laws/pas… )

      Thanks,
      Angelina

      Reply
      1. José Carlos3 months ago

        “we chose to include the Queen of England as a ceremonial head of state because her role is largely ceremonial”

        Isn’t the same true for the King of Thailand? Inconsistently, Thailand is listed while the UK is not.

        Reply
  2. Carl Stoll5 months ago

    Article 2 of the Argentine Constitution of 1994 states that the federal government espouses Catholicism. Previous versions required the presuident to be a Catholic, so this is actually a step AWAY from clericalism.

    Reply
    1. Angelina Theodorou5 months ago

      Thanks for your question, Argentina’s most recent constitution (1994) requires the following criteria for candidates for the presidency:

      “SECTION II. THE EXECUTIVE POWER
      CHAPTER I. OF ITS NATURE AND DURATION
      ARTICLE 89: To be elected President or Vice President of the Nation requires one to have been born in Argentine territory or if one was born in a foreign country, to be the child of a native citizen and [to possess] the other qualifications required to be elected Senator.”

      The other qualifications required to be elected Senator include:

      “ARTICLE 55: The requirements to be elected Senator are: to have attained the age of thirty years, to have been a citizen of the Nation for six years, to enjoy an annual income of two thousand pesos or its equivalent, and to be a native of the Province that elects him or been in residence in the Province during the previous two years.”

      The article you refer to is not a requirement for the head of state, rather it’s a statement of general government support for the Church, which appears at the beginning if the constitution. The text you refer to states the following:

      “ARTICLE 2: The Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith.”

      Thanks,

      Angelina

      Reply
  3. Andry5 months ago

    I am an Indonesian. We do not see Pancasila (the five pillars) as a religion, even though we have the belief in God as the first pillar in Pancasila. It is only a national political ideology comparable to those of Marxism, capitalism, democracy and the like.

    Pancasila does not contain any ritual, a certain theological set of beliefs, nor a rule of behavings considered sacred or holly; just like any religion would do. It is “only” the basis of our constitution and all laws.

    In a nutshell, it doesn’t qualify as a religion, even for Indonesians.

    Reply
  4. syed arif5 months ago

    A good article and the comments as well.

    Reply
  5. RobbieC5 months ago

    The Queen has to be a Protestant as she heads the ‘established’ Church of England. You cannot legally be the monarch, for example, if you are a member of a ‘disestablished’ church, particularly if you are a catholic, but also if you were a Quaker, Baptist, or even a member of the Church of Scotland.

    Reply
  6. Wes Goodvin5 months ago

    I noted in the reference to the several states that denied the right to hold office those who denied the existence of God that Arkansas also holds Atheists to be incompetent to be witnesses in any court. I wonder what would result if an Atheist was the sole witness to a particular heinous murder. Would they change the constitution, ignore it or let the criminal go?

    Reply
  7. Alessandro5 months ago

    Am I missing something, or you did not include the Vatican? It is a sovereign state and the pope is its absolute monarch (although an elected one).

    Reply
    1. Angelina Theodorou5 months ago

      Thanks for your question, Vatican City was not included in this analysis, the 198 countries used include those found in our religious restrictions report, which is available here:

      pewforum.org/2014/01/14/religiou…

      Thanks,

      Angelina

      Reply
  8. Guido5 months ago

    Israel?

    Reply
    1. One4 months ago

      Israel isn’t a religious country: you can practice any religion you want without any sanctions. Freedom of religion is even written in the declaration of independence. There aren’t rules requiring certain officials to practice a certain religion. BTW, most don’t know, but Judaism itself has many different strains, sometimes different strains don’t even see each other as Jewish. There are currently Muslims in the Knesset, and there used to be Muslim ministers, but a Muslim prime minister wasn’t ever elected by the people. Nice fact: Israel had a female prime minister back in the 70s. Israel has had a female prime minister, and I think in the future we’ll see Israelis electing other minorities: Russian Jews, middle eastern Jews, and eventually maybe even a Muslim prime minister. Though the Muslims in the Knesset are usually AGAINST the existence of Israel, which goes to show how much of a democracy Israel is.
      As a Muslim in Israel you get an automatic exemption from the military, as the state doesn’t want to force Muslims to fight other Muslims, though many choose so and have progressed upwards in the ladder of ranks.
      Israel does have a few religious rules: if your city had a Jewish majority before 1948, public transportation isn’t allowed on Saturday. Most of these rules are leftovers, Ben Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) wanted to get all the different faction’s acceptance, and in order to appeal to the ultra orthodox Jews he made some concessions, that ironically harm all Jews living today who’d rather not concede.
      Public transportation is allowed on Saturday in other places though, for example Haifa which has a substantial Muslim population.

      Reply
  9. Raja M. Ali Saleem5 months ago

    If the focus of the article is whether the position of head of state is restricted to members of a specific religion, then all countries that have such restrictions should be listed first. The distinction between the ‘ceremonial monarchs’ and other heads of state, if need be, should have been made later. The way article is organized, it gives a distorted picture.

    The headline says, ‘In 30 countries, heads of state must belong to a certain religion’ and these 30 countries are listed and shown on the graph. This gives the impression that other countries do not have such restrictions. It is only later that the author remembers that there are some other countries that also restrict head of state to a certain religion. The obvious question is why these countries are not included in the headline count or the first list? The answer is not clearly given but the implicit suggestion is that these heads of state do not have real power.

    This distinction is false as many countries included in the first list also have heads of state that do not have real power. One pertinent example is that of Malaysia. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, just like Australia, Canada, New Zealand etc. The Malaysian king (head of state) does not have real power, like the British monarch. But still Malaysia is not in the same list as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Similarly, Pakistan’s presidency (though not a monarchy) is also a ceremonial position with no real powers but still Pakistan is in the first list.

    The issue discussed in the article was whether head of state has to be a member of a certain religion. Unfortunately, from the very start, this specificity was lost and other factors like power and type of political system influenced the choices/results of analysis.

    Reply
    1. Surinder Bhardwaj5 months ago

      Raja’s comments have weight. Maybe PEW author should revise the analysis.

      Reply
    2. Angelina Theodorou5 months ago

      Thanks for your feedback Raja,

      We chose to separate ceremonial monarchies from the other countries because of the very limited (if at all) involvement of those monarchs in the day to day activities of the country. Although Pakistan’s president holds limited powers, it is not a monarchy which is why it was excluded from the list. Malaysia was not included in the list of ceremonial monarchies because of the powers afforded to the King according to the country’s constitution. According to the constitution of Malaysia, the King (known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong) has the power to appoint the Prime Minister (Article 40.2), he holds supreme command of the armed forced of the country (Article 41), and has power to reject new legislation (Article 66).

      Thanks,

      Angelina

      Reply
  10. Chris5 months ago

    Given that the Vatican is an independent country, should it not be included? The Pontiff must necessarily be Roman Catholic.

    Reply
  11. Dave5 months ago

    Didn’t you forgot Vatican City State?

    Reply
    1. Angelina Theodorou5 months ago

      Thanks for your question, Vatican City was not included in this analysis, the 198 countries used include those found in our religious restrictions report, which is available here:

      pewforum.org/2014/01/14/religiou…

      Thanks,

      Angelina

      Reply
  12. Muthyavan.5 months ago

    In Sri Lanka also the constitution accept Buddhisim as the state religion and only a Singhala language speaking Buddist can be the president of the state.

    Reply
    1. Angelina Theodorou5 months ago

      Thanks for your feedback, according to our analysis, the Constitution of Sri Lanka does not indicate that there is a law requiring a Buddhist president:

      “CHAPTER VII. THE EXECUTIVE – The President of the Republic
      30. The President of the Republic
      1. There shall be a President of the Republic of Sri Lanka, who is the Head of the State, the Head of the Executive and of the Government, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
      2. The President of the Republic shall be elected by the People, and shall hold office for a term of six years.
      31. The election and the term of office of the President
      1. Any citizen who is qualified to be elected to the office of President may be nominated as a candidate for such office –
      a.by a recognized political party; or
      b.if he is or has been an elected member of the legislature, by any other political party or by an elector whose name has been entered in any register of electors.
      2. [Repealed].
      3. The poll for the election of the President shall be taken not less than one month and not more than two months before the expiration of the term of office of the President in office.”

      constituteproject.org/constituti…

      Thanks,

      Angelina

      Reply
      1. KMKVSKP3 months ago

        A very nice and crisp article by Angelina Theodorou. The comments especially have been very illuminating. The prompt reply of the author is truly encouraging. Angelina Theodorou has done her research well. All in all a very good piece.

        Reply
  13. Gary Bouma5 months ago

    You left out the Unitef Kingdom amd all countries welcoming the British monarch as their head of state.

    Reply
    1. Angelina Theodorou5 months ago

      Thanks for your comment, we address this above in the post:

      In addition to the 30 countries in this analysis, another 19 nations have religious requirements for ceremonial monarchs who serve as their heads of state. Sixteen of these, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are members of the Commonwealth of Nations with Queen Elizabeth II – also known as the Defender of the Faith – as their head of state. The other countries in this category are Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

      Thanks,

      Angelina

      Reply
  14. Keith Martin5 months ago

    When will the Dark Age ever end?

    Reply
  15. Y.M5 months ago

    Since when was Pancasila clasified as religious system?

    Reply
    1. Angelina Theodorou5 months ago

      Thanks for your feedback, we opted to include Pancasila as a religious requirement due to its inclusion of belief in God as one of its tenets.

      Thanks,

      Angelina

      Reply
  16. Deirdre Shaw5 months ago

    You omitted to mention with regard to the UK that the monarch here has more than a ceremonial role. No monarch this century has vetoed any part of the political process but has the power to do so in a number of ways. In addition, the upper house of Parliament is only partially elected with several bishops of the Church of England having seats as a right in the House of Lords. Testimony in our Courts of Law is given by oath on the Bible as does the swearing of many legal documents. People of other religions or no religion can ‘affirm’ but it is not regarded as having the force of the Anglican oath. Marriages outside of the Church of Wales and Church of Scotland are more complicated than under the auspices of the State Religion or the Registrar General for England and Wales.

    Reply
  17. J.C.5 months ago

    This Analysis is wrong on so many levels, that you don’t even know where to start. Obviously, there is a difference between a monarchy (like Britain or Thailand), which already restricts the position of the head of state to a very small minority, e.g. members of one single family, and supposedly democratic states, which disenfranchise non-muslim citizens (like Afghanistan or Algeria).

    Also one must distinguish between countries which clearly favour members of a certain religions and Lebanon, where the religious requirement is part of an intricate power-sharing agreement: while Lebanon’s head of state must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the National Assembly a Shia Muslim.

    And concerning Andorra, the constitution does not stipulate that its head of state must be a Christian: Andorra has two co-heads of state, the president of France and the Roman Catholic bishop of Urgell. The former can of course be of any religion.

    Reply
  18. Dan the Mormon5 months ago

    I was surprised by the number of countries specifically restricting members of the clergy from leading the country. It shows the bias goes both ways: religious to non-religious and visa versa.

    Reply
    1. Michael5 months ago

      I strongly disagree
      A head of state may be religious but she/he should never be a member of the clergy.
      Otherwise state and church would not be clearly separated.
      In switzerland the head(s) of state have to retire from every seat of any management boards which I think is also necessary (although easly circumvented).
      Probably the same in other countries but I don’t know.

      Reply
    2. Anon5 months ago

      It’s not bias against religious people, though, just against those whose careers are based on upholding one particular religion. I can see how that would be a compromise both of their duty of care to their congregations as well perhaps posing some issues about equal protection of all faiths.

      Reply
  19. Syed Aqeel5 months ago

    stereotyping should not find way through surveys. Most of the countries surveyed are muslim countries.
    In india, we have a prime minister who is a pujari (hindu priest), and a democratically elected pujari. Secondly, name me a european country whose head of state was a muslim, hindu or else. He has to be necessarily a christian or at times can be a jew. every country has kept a requirement for itself. Religion should not be seen as a hurdle.

    Reply
    1. Dan the Mormon5 months ago

      You make a good point. Even if a law isn’t on the books, there are de facto restrictions on who can lead a country. The USA, for example, has never had a President who claims to be any religion other than Protestant or Catholic (or maybe Deist if you look back far enough).

      Reply
    2. J.C.5 months ago

      A European country with a Muslim head of state? What about Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo or Turkey? All of them have or head Muslim heads of state or co-heads of state.

      But that doesn’t matter, because this is not about which religion heads of state have, but which countries *require* theirs to be of a certain religion. That there has never been a German president, who was a Muslim, is therefore irrelevant. What’s relevant is, that there is no law or regulation whatsoever that would prohibit a Muslim from becoming president of Germany.

      Reply
    3. srishti5 months ago

      There’s a different between ‘can be’ legally or can be because of ‘social/demographic’ reasons. A Bahai/Hindu/Muslim may not be elected because people may not relate to them but can legally stand for elections whereas in Malaysia 40% of the non-Muslim population cannot stand for elections.The possibility of standing for elections by being given that right differs from the probability of getting elected. A person can stand as an atheist on the US but getting elected may prove a problem, but that doesn’t stop someone trying and starting a dialogue on the role of religion.

      Reply