The commission also voiced alarm over regulations on religious practice in the Muslim-majority country under President Ilham Aliyev, including a requirement that all religious groups be registered and their literature approved by an official body.

Blinken said in addition to the State Department's “special watch list,” there are 12 “countries of particular concern” -- Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. There was no change in this list from the year before.


What makes dictatorship or compels them to often target and oppress religious groups? I noticed that most countries that are known to oppress religious groups tend to be dictatorships. I know some countries do it for a particular reason. For example, Saudi Arabia is pretty much a theocracy. The question is more aimed towards secular governments like North Korea, China and Russia.

  • 4
    Ukraine is an example of a recognized democracy targeting and oppressing a religious group. Why it's not on the list is left as an excercise for the reader.
    – alamar
    Commented Feb 20 at 13:26
  • 1
    It is comparable with Tajikistan though, which fought a civil war against Wahhabi islamists in the 90s.
    – alamar
    Commented Feb 20 at 14:01
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    @alamar there is ofc a possibility that Ukraine will stay a dictatorship after the war is over, assuming it survives.
    – user42328
    Commented Feb 20 at 14:04
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    @alamar: charges of [state] Islamophobia are also pretty common against more established democracies: France, Switzerland etc. (Netherlands might soon join that list.) Commented Feb 20 at 18:36
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    @alamar: And Singapore, which has a FreedomHouse rating similar to Ukraine, exercises various controls on religions it deems inappropriate (even though Singapore is not a war) state.gov/reports/… Commented Feb 20 at 18:45

3 Answers 3


I'd say that is primarily because dictatorships, in order to secure their rule over a considerable time-span, tend to be a form of totalitarianism, which is

[a] form of government that theoretically permits no individual freedom and that seeks to subordinate all aspects of individual life to the authority of the state.

Since religion actually is an important aspect of life for many people and, more importantly, carries a set of ethical values with it that can easily run contrary to the interests of the state, it is only natural that totalitarian regimes try to assimilate or ban religious institutions and practices.

As history has shown us, those that allow for religious freedoms often find the churches to be a seed of resistance, like for example in the German Democratic Republic, where the evangelical church was pretty political and an important factor in facilitating the peaceful overthrowing of the dictatorship.

  • Totalitarism and dictatorships are different things and only the minority of listed regimes are totalitarian.
    – alamar
    Commented Feb 20 at 22:37
  • @alamar 1) I know that, and it should be more than clear from my wording. 2) Many dictatorships are religious, ie. their leaders pose as religious leaders, see e.g. Iran. 3) Where do you get your "are not totalitarian" claim from? Commented Feb 21 at 4:27
  • You will have hard time persuading people China or Pakistan are totalitarian in 2024.
    – alamar
    Commented Feb 21 at 8:27
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    @alamar I do not know enough about Pakistan to judge it but China not being called totalitarian while having the most extensive surveillance state, including people getting negative ratings which limit access to culture, housing, and financial instruments merely for uttering certain views and religious groups being forced into re-education camps is a bad joke. Commented Feb 21 at 8:33
  • Thar's still authoritarianism. Totalitarism would require citizens to self-mobilize for certain actions, whereas autoritarianism mostly dissuades from doing what is deemed bad stuff.
    – alamar
    Commented Feb 21 at 8:42

There are several reasons religions are either taken over by dictatorships (e.g. Russia) or oppressed (e.g. communist states). When a dictatorship takes over a religion, it essentially tries to blend in with the religion and twist its principles to make it work with the dictatorship rhetoric. This is basically what is happening in Russia and most Islamic states. But the main reasons to do it remain the same.

Divide and conquer

One of the key elements for a dictatorship to survive is to ensure people do not band together against it. Religions offer a set of rules, traditions and principles to live by, which tends to bring people together, and creates trust between people. That's bad business for dictatorships, which want to ensure people do not trust each other enough to spark a revolution.

The idea of a creator / omniscient God

Most religions claim there's a God (or a group of gods) somewhere that is all knowing, all powerful, holds the keys to ultimate justice. Dictatorships want to hold those things for themselves. Religions essentially create an alternative to dictatorships. People will suddenly wonder if they should fear their maker or the dictatorship more. If they fear their maker more, and the teachings of the maker come in direct conflict with those of the dictatorship, then the dictatorship is potentially in trouble. This has been a source of friction e.g. between the Pope and various European emperors throughout the ages.

National identity

Religions often have some local traditions mixed in, which means the history of a nation is deeply intertwined with its religion. A dictatorship often wants to wipe the state clean and instill it own tradition in order to keep people obedient. This has been the approach of the soviet communism in USSR and satellite states.

Breeding ground for leaders

Prominent figures of religions will have popular support, and they can pose a threat to the current establishment of a dictatorship. This doesn't necessarily mean that they will overthrow the dictatorship rather than becoming part of it by replacing the current leadership, but this is a risk that the dictatorship system doesn't want to take. A good example would be Martin Luther and the protestant movement in the 16th and 17th centuries.


Religions offer potentially dangerous alternatives to the dictatorship, so something has to be done about it.


What prompts dictatorships to often target and oppress religions?

I think first it's important to recognise that not only "dictatorships" (as the word is commonly understood) target religions.

Religions are also targeted by liberals, whenever the religious oppose the capitalist economy, whenever they oppose forms of science which liberals deify, or whenever they explicitly or implicitly reject the mass individualism which liberals promote.

Religions are also very frequently targeted by other religions.

The reasons religions are targeted are always the same, which is that religions are effectively (in secular terms) ideologies and political organisations, and they come into conflict and power struggle with other ideologies, organisations, and political forces.

The reason why so-called communist regimes often came into conflict with religions, was firstly because Marx explicitly blasted religions as a pacifier and a tool of ruling class oppression, secondly because communist regimes are often explicitly secular and anti-supernatural (instead lauding rationality, naturalism, and science) and thus deny a central tenet of the popular and ancient religions, and thirdly because clergy often had enough experience of political management themselves to know some revolutionary proposals were rash and would be unworkable in their own terms. So there was reason for enmity on both sides.

Right-wing dictatorships tend to have a more ambiguous relationship with religion, usually accomodating obedient clergy, and potentially opposing religion for more detailed and narrower reasons than communist revolutionaries often did. Right-wing forces are not hostile to the pacifying role of religion upon the masses (since right-wing dictatorships seek to privilege a minority and are bankrolled by the rich), and are rarely so ideologically fundamentalist as to find it necessary to deny the supernatural (thus avoiding irreconcilable conflict with religious clergy and congregations).

  • "Targeted" is such a broad term though. Compare "Richard Dawkins targeted Christianity in his latest interview". "The Nazis targeted the Jews". "The Nazis oppressed the Jews". "Richard Dawkins oppressed Christianity in his latest interview". Commented Feb 26 at 19:55

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