Freedom of Religion: Study Questions


Suggested Study Questions and Activities

Teachers: The following are questions and activities that can be given to your students after they read the materials in each section. The questions are meant to be asked as a review exercise, although some encourage critical thinking as well. The activities can be presented as classroom exercises or as individual homework assignments. Unlike the questions, they tend to require additional research. Some call for students to create mock trials or debates that would engage the entire class. Both the questions and the activities are formatted so that they might be used directly by students, although you may rewrite them as you feel necessary.

Essential Principles


What were the most important developments for freedom of religion in Europe? How did the essential elements of religious freedom develop? Is formal separation of religion and state necessary to religious freedom or is religious freedom possible where a state religion is recognized?


Many of the countries selected for this study guide have significant or majority Muslim populations (France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Netherlands, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey). They offer a variety of models for the relationship between Islam and the state. Is there a correlation of religious freedom and Freedom House’s categorization of Free, Partly Free, and Free Countries? In which countries are there a state religion? Is Sharia practiced? Does it have formal sanction as state law? How are Muslims and non-Muslims treated under Sharia? Do non-Muslims have freedom of religion or are they discriminated against? What do the comparisons tell you about the practice of freedom of religion in Muslim countries?

United States


The United States has adherents of just about every known religion living within its borders. Has it protected the rights of all? If so, how has this been accomplished? Are there ever conflicts between religious groups in the United States? What circumstances have led to religious friction?

How did the United States change to reflect its constitutional premise of separation of church and state and unhindered freedom of belief? What branch of government had more to do with expanding religious freedom?

What periods in US history have seen religious discrimination? What religions have experienced discrimination? How? Review current events in the US (e.g. regarding the presidential election campaign, Supreme Court cases, issues that involve religious liberty). Has there been expression of bigotry towards religious groups? How does it compare to previous expressions and practices in the US?


Using the Resource links, review some of the Supreme Court decisions discussed in the Country Study. What questions concerning religious freedom does the country face today? Find majority and dissenting decisions in these cases as well as an article discussing one recent Supreme Court case regarding the establishment of religion (e.g. the Texas monument case). Take a position in the case (majority/dissenting).  Defend your position.

To address one of the most current cases, assign students to read Linda Greenhouse’s OpEd article in the The New York Times “Hobby Lobby in Context” (July 9, 2014). What issues were raised in this case and other cases related to the Affordable Care Act? What other cases does Linda Greenhouse cite? How is the Supreme Court ruling in such cases and what are the majority’s reasons? Is the Supreme Court “changing direction” to accommodate religious practices? How do these cases differ from earlier cases?



In Nigeria’s history, was there religious freedom before independence? After independence? How does the adoption of Sharia law in 12 of 36 states in Nigeria affect freedom of religion? Does the application of Sharia, in civil or criminal cases, necessarily contradict the principles of freedom of religion? What recourses are there to a Sharia court ruling? Is the exclusion of Sharia from official courts itself a violation of religious freedom, as claimed by some Muslim leaders in Nigeria?


Compare the section on Nigeria with the country study of Saudi Arabia (chapter 8, "Rule of Law"). Discuss what are the consequences of establishing religious law as the state's law? Review the History and US sections. What other current or historical examples can students find to illustrate these dangers?

Review articles relating to the rise of fundamentalist movements Boko Haram and Ansaru. Discuss the threat to religious freedom and to general freedoms posed by such extremism. Have students research the response of the Nigerian government to these religious extremist movements and read Nicolas Kristof’s Op-ed article “What Is So Scary about Smart Girls?” in the The New York Times. Discuss what approaches are likely to be effective in combatting Boko Haram?



How was religious freedom observed before and after the 1954 Geneva Agreement that divided the country into South and North Vietnam? What was the influence of China’s imperial control on religious freedom? Of Vietnam’s dynastic emperors? Of French colonial administration? How does the Vietnamese government today justify the controls it imposes on religion? How successful has it been in manipulating religion to serve the state? What independent religious groups are there in Vietnam? Can they practice their religion freely?


Compare Nigeria and Vietnam Country Studies. Are there any similarities between Vietnam's state-imposed religious practices and the newly adopted Sharia statutes in Nigeria's northern, mostly Muslim states? What are the differences? How are Vietnam’s practices similar to other communist countries? Include research from the Resource section and the internet.

The Vietnamese government proposed a new law on religion in 2015. Will this improve religious freedom in Vietnam? Look at the different links in Resources to see how this law is being considered by human rights organizations, the Economist, and The New York Times.

Freedom of Religion: Resources


Essential Principles

Basic Readings in U.S. Democracy. InfoUSA, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC. (Home Page)
     "Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom," with Backgrounder (link).

Religious Freedom Web Page. “Court Decisions.” Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 2001.
     See also the main site of the Religious Freedom Page at

Roosevelt, Franklin D. "The Four Freedoms." Speech before U.S. Congress, January 6, 1941.
     See also American Rhetoric home page.

Marshall, Paul and Shea, Nina. Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press: 2011).

Pew Research Center. The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society. April 2013.

Vermeulen, Ben. "The Historical Development of Religious Freedom." Lecture. April 1998.

UN General Assembly. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Adopted December 16, 1966.

U.S. State Department
     Office of International Religious Freedom, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
     International Religious Freedom Report. See links for Annual Reports.

United States

International Coalition for Religious Freedom. See "Religious Freedom in the United States of America," in ICRF country reports listed by continent (link).

Jefferson, Thomas. “Letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802).” Library of Congress. Etext.

Kraft, Emilie. "Ten Commandments Monument Controversy." Encyclopedia of Alabama, May 12, 2008.

Library of Congress. "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic." July 23, 2010.

National Archives (link).
     Charters of Freedom (links to U.S. Constitution for Article VI and First Amendment). See also Teachers’ Resources.

Pew Research Center.
     America’s Changing Religious Landscape. May 2015.
     US Becoming Less Religious. November 2015.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. "How Religion in the United States Avails Itself of Democratic Tendencies."   Chapter 5. Democracy in America, volume II, 1835.

The New York Times.
     “Reading Hobby Lobby in Context,” Oped by Linda Greenhouse, July 9, 2014.

U.S. Supreme Court Decisions (see FindLaw: U.S. Supreme Court for general reference)
     Abington v. Schempp, 347 U.S. 203 (1963). Case on school prayer.
     Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). Case on state funding for nonpublic schools.
     Moore v. Glassroth, 335 F.3d 1282 (11th cir. 2003). Case involving Ten Commandments monument in Alabama state courthouse.


Economist magazine. Topics Index: Nigeria. See, e.g.:
     "Nigeria: Africa’s New Number One,” April 10, 2014.

The New York Times. Times Topics: Nigeria. See, e.g.:
     "Boko Harem Ranked Ahead of ISIS as Deadliest Terror Group for 2014.” November 21, 2015.
     “Nigerian President Escalates Campaign to Stem Corruption.” October 19, 2015.
     “In Nigeria, An Election To Believe In.” Op-Ed. April 9, 2015.
     “Tales of Escapees in Nigeria Add to Worries About Other Kidnapped Girls,” May 14, 2014.
Rights Group Says Data Suggests Mass Shootings in Nigeria,” March 31, 2014.

     "What's So Scary About Smart Girls" by Nicholas Kristof. May 11, 2014

Fund for Peace. Failed States Index: Nigeria: Country Data and Trends.

Human Rights Watch: 2016 World Report: Nigeria. See also Human Rights in Nigeria country page.

International Coalition for Religious Freedom. See, "Religious Freedom in Nigeria," inICRF country reports listed by continent.

Sahara Reporters. Independent reporting on Nigeria and Africa (link).

Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).

U.S. Department of State. International Religious Freedom Report (link). Select year and drop down menu for countries and regions to link to Nigeria.


Economist magazine. Topics Index: Vietnam.
     “Reptilian Maneuvers: A Colourful Prime Minister Goes as the Gray Men Stay.” January 26, 2016.
     “Religion in Vietnam: Higher Powers.” September 26, 2015.

The New York Times. World Topics: Vietnam
     "Vietnam’s Communist Party Gives Old-Guard Leader a New 5-Year Term.”
January 27, 2016.
“Kerry Tells Vietnam That US Ties Will Deepen if Human Rights Are Respected.” August 7, 2015.
In Hard Times, Open Dissent and Repression Rise in Vietnam,” April 23, 2013.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Threats to Internet Freedom on the Rise in Vietnam.” Eva Galperin. September 12, 2012.

Human Rights Watch: 2016 World Report: Vietnam. See also Human Rights in Vietnam country page.

International Coalition for Religious Freedom. See "Religious Freedom in Vietnam" incountry reports listed by continent.

UN Council on Human Rights. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief. 
     Home Page and Country Visit Reports (see links to 2014 Country Visit to Vietnam).

U.S. Department of State. International Religious Freedom Report (link). Select year and drop down menu for countries and regions to link to Vietnam.


Freedom of Religion: Country Studies - Vietnam

Vietnam Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 6; Political Rights: 7; Civil Liberties: 5.



Although it is ethnically and linguistically distinct from China, Vietnam was greatly influenced in its history by more than 1,000 years of Chinese imperial rule that began in 111 BC. The ouster of the Chinese in the 10th century AD and Vietnam’s subsequent resistance to Chinese domination fostered a strong sense of Vietnamese nationalism. France colonized what is known as Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) in the second half of the 19th century, but was forced to withdraw in 1954 as a result of an intense guerilla war, leaving behind separate governments in South and North Vietnam. The war that followed, in which the United States sided with the non-Communist south, ended with the unification of the country under the Communist north. The north’s severe repression of the south caused one of the worst refugee crises since World War II.

The united Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a one-party Communist state similar to the People's Republic of China. It has an oppressive police apparatus, controlled media, government domination of religious institutions, and limitations on individual liberties. Workers and peasants alike are generally exploited and have little ability to represent their interests independently. There have been many religious influences on Vietnam (Buddhist, Confucianist, Taoist, Catholic, and Protestant) but very few periods of true religious freedom. South Vietnam harshly suppressed religious groups believed to represent a threat to the government. North Vietnam expelled foreign clergy and established full political control over all religious organizations. After the North’s victory in 1975, the Communist government imposed its full control over religion in the south.

Also similarly to China, Vietnam reformed its economy under a policy it calls doi moi (renovation), which allows aspects of a free market and seeks to attract foreign investment. Since 1986, its nominal GDP has grown nearly nine times to $186 billion, ranking it 55th in the world according to the International Monetary Fund’s 2014 estimates. But growth has slowed considerably in the last three years and the government has failed to reform the state-owned enterprise sector. Per capita income remains low. In a country of nearly 92 million people (2015 official estimate), nominal GDP per capita was $2,171 per year, or 131st in the world.


The Chinese Millennium

The Vietnamese, ethnically related to Southeast Asians, were strongly influenced by interaction with the Chinese to the north. In 208 BC, an early Viet kingdom in the northern Red River delta region was conquered by a Chinese general, who established his own kingdom. The area was then taken over by China's Han dynasty in 111 BC, the beginning of a millennium of Chinese rule. During this time, imperial administrators developed the country's roads, ports, and irrigation and also imposed a strict Confucian system of law and government. Chinese elites cooperated with local ruling classes to establish a thriving agricultural maritime trade, opening the region to Indian influence and the spread of Buddhism. several unsuccessful rebellions against Chinese rule, a local general, Ngo Quyen, finally overthrew the Chinese in AD 939 and established an independent state.

Vietnamese Dynasties and Rebellions

After several unsuccessful rebellions against Chinese rule, a local general, Ngo Quyen, finally overthrew the Chinese in AD 939 and established an independent state. Political instability led to another Chinese invasion attempt but it was rebuffed and the more stable Ly dynasty was inaugurated (1009–1225). The country was renamed Dai Viet and Buddhism was declared the state religion. Dai Viet expanded steadily southward along the coastal plain, a process that continued under the succeeding Tran dynasty (1225–1400), which also fended off Mongol invasion attempts from the north in the 13th century. In 1407, the Chinese Ming dynasty was invited to quell a peasant rebellion, but a former court scholar named Le Loi led another rebellion to reclaim Vietnamese territory and establish a new dynasty.

The Le dynasty was the longest in Vietnamese history, formally lasting until 1788. Already by the 16th century, however, the country was divided between two warlord families, the Nguyen in the south and the Trinh in the north, who both pledged allegiance to the Le dynasty but engaged in prolonged civil war for control. In the famous Tay Son rebellion (1771–1802), peasants rose up to end the warlords’ high taxation for war, overthrow  both regions’ ruling classes, and redistribute the land and wealth of. The rebellion, led by the three Tay Son brothers, defeated and killed the Nguyen and Trinh families. But after dividing the country into three provinces, famine and disorder weakened their rule. A French-backed military force led by Nguyen Anh, a survivor of the Nguyen ruling family, seized control of the country in 1802. He assumed the name Gia Long and created a new Nguyen dynasty. He moved the capital of his new dynasty to Hue and renamed the country to its present name, Viet Nam.

French Expansion

Gia Long's rule reestablished the privileges of major landowners and imposed onerous taxes, forced labor, and obligatory military service on peasants. Neo-Confucianism and other aspects of the Chinese state system were adopted, while Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions were abolished. The imperial government also began to crack down on the growing numbers of Roman Catholics, converted by French missionaries. Although the French had backed Gia Long's rise to power, French and Catholic influence were seen as a threat to the Confucian regime. Imperial authorities began executing and expelling  local Christians and missionaries, who appealed to Emperor Napoleon III of France for assistance.  He ordered an invasion in 1857 and by 1862, Tu Duc, the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, ceded the south region to the French. By 1883, French protectorates were extended to neighboring Cambodia and northern and central parts of Vietnam. The four territories were organized as the Indochinese Union in 1887. Laos, the remaining territory in Indochina, was added in 1893. Vietnamese initially accepted colonial rule. . . . The policies of French governors, however, quickly alienated the Vietnamese population.

French Colonial Rule and Resistance

Some Vietnamese initially accepted colonial rule since the Nguyen emperors had failed to protect the people  either from foreign invasion or from a series of deadly natural disasters. Catholic Vietnamese, persecuted under the imperial government, also welcomed French control. The policies of French governors, however, quickly alienated the Vietnamese population. French administrators replaced the existing bureaucracy of Confucian scholar-officials while ; French settlers, known as colons, displaced Vietnamese peasants by taking over concentrated landholdings. The French reorganized the economy to expand agricultural production and extract raw materials. Rice, minerals and rubber became leading exports. Local industry was discouraged so that Vietnam would be a market for French-made products.

Armed resistance movements started to emerge, initially with the aim of restoring the precolonial system but soon adopting European-inspired republican, nationalist, and communist ideas. In 1925, Ho Chi Minh, educated in Paris, joined colleagues together to create the Revolutionary Youth League, which later became the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). The Communists launched an unsuccessful peasant revolt in 1930–31, but survived the subsequent crackdown and continued to organize armed resistance. When the Imperial Japanese Army occupied Vietnam in 1940, it retained the French administration, now under orders of the pro-Axis Vichy government. Ho Chi Minh formed a new resistance force called Viet Minh that united his Communists with other groups around the goal of national liberation. In 1945, the Japanese dispensed French administration altogether and established an "independent" Vietnamese puppet government under the hapless Nguyen holdover emperor, Bao Dai.

Ho Chi Minh

 Independence, Division, and the First Indochina War

The Viet Minh took control of the north and parts of the south at the end of World War II and announced the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with its capital in Hanoi. But the Viet Minh faced resistance from armed non-Communist groups in the south and then fell under temporary postwar occupation in the north by Chinese nationalist troops. In the south, occupying British forces ceded control to French soldiers loyal to the Free French Government and these retook many Viet Minh–held areas. In early 1946, Ho Chi Minh agreed to incorporate the Democratic Republic of Vietnam into the French-led Indochinese Union. Southern Vietnam was made a separate republic.

The Viet Minh quickly rebelled against the French in the north to begin the First Indochina War in 1946. As the conflict continued, the French unified central and southern parts of the country under Bao Dai as the Associated State of Vietnam, which was nominally independent. The Bao Dai regime was recognized by the United States, Great Britain, and other anti-Communist powers, while the Viet Minh government established in the north was recognized by the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. The French, even with US financial assistance, lost control of the countryside to Viet Minh guerrillas. The capture of the strategic French outpost at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 at the cost of 25,000 Viet Minh fighters convinced France to end the war. A cease-fire agreement negotiated in Geneva divided the country at the 17th parallel. French forces and the Bao Dai government withdrew to the south and the Viet Minh retreated to the north. Scheduled elections leading to a single national government were never held.

The Two Vietnams and the Second Indochina War

In the North, Ho Chi Minh consolidated his control. He imposed a communist political system, forcibly collectivized agriculture, introduced an industrialization program with Soviet and Chinese aid, and crushed internal opposition. At the same time, Ho Chi Minh supported and equipped a national liberation movement in the South called the Viet Cong with the aim of uniting the country under his communist government. In the South, Bao Dai's prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, installed a nationalist and anti-Communist government supported by the US. In 1955, a referendum was held that made Diem president of a new Republic of Vietnam and removed Bao Dai as head of state. Diem also used authoritarian tactics to maintain control. Over eight years, he ordered the arrests of nearly 100,000 suspected Communists and sympathizers, suppressed religious sects in the countryside, and cracked down on Buddhist political dissent in the cities. These actions provoked fierce opposition but did nothing to halt the advance of the Communist-led Viet Cong. A US-authorized military coup ousted and killed Diem in 1963, which led to a series of short-lived governments.

Starting in the late 1950s, the US steadily increased its contingent of military advisers and pilots assisting the South Vietnamese army. In 1965, a reputed attack on US naval forces by the North Vietnamese navy in the Gulf of Tonkin prompted President Lyndon Johnson to ask Congress for a resolution authorizing the escalation of US military forces. The US began heavy bombings in the North and deployed large numbers of combat troops in the South. At the height of the war, there were over a half million US troops in the country. But in 1968, Communist forces launched a coordinated series of attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in the South on the New Year, or Tet, holiday. As with Dien Bien Phu, the Tet offensive led to heavy losses by Communist forces and in this case the territory that was captured was quickly retaken. But the scale of the campaign eroded the American public’s support for an already controversial war that the US appeared not to be winning. As opposition to the war grew, the US agreed to negotiations and began a gradual troop pull-out even before an agreement was reached. The 1973 Paris Peace Accords formally ended the war and nominally guaranteed independence for the South in exchange for full US military withdrawal. But the North continued to support the Viet Cong’s military campaign until the South Vietnamese government collapsed in 1975. government's coercive attempts to transform South Vietnamese society led to one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II.

Post-1975 Vietnam

The reunification of the country under a new name, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, superimposed the North’s communist government on the south. There followed a campaign of repression, similar to that carried out in the North after 1946, to consolidate the North’s control of the South. The repression campaign included the forced relocation of millions of people, the internment of hundreds of thousands of others in "reeducation camps," and the reorganization of the economy around socialized agriculture and industry. The government's coercive attempts to transform South Vietnamese society led to one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II, as roughly one million people fled the country by land and sea over the next decade.

The communist economy, however, deteriorated to the point of collapse. In 1986, the government launched a reform program called doi moi similar to that undertaken in China to encourage foreign investment by allowing private property and independent economic activity. As in China, Vietnam’s reforms helped propel economic growth and reduce poverty but the Communist Party retained a tight grip on political power. The Communist Party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu explained the party’s ruling philosophy in 1999  to the Central Committee Plenum:

Our people won't allow any political power sharing with any other forces [than the Vietnamese Communist Party]. Any ideas to promote "absolute democracy," to put human rights above sovereignty, or support multiparty or political pluralism . . . are lies and cheating.

For a brief period, the Vietnamese government eased repression in response to international pressure on human rights issues, but such reform policies appear to have been directly tied to government efforts to obtain membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Following accession to the WTO in 2007, the government increased the arrests and harsh sentencing of dissidents, especially bloggers, democracy advocates, and independent trade union activists. The government also heightened internet censorship and resumed disruption of independent religious activities (see below). In economic policy, as growth slowed and economic reforms stalled, the government continued to suppress independent labor activity and to maintain a low-wage system to attract international investment.

Freedom of Religion

As noted above, the history of religion in Vietnam, as in most countries, was characterized by state efforts to impose certain beliefs and practices on the population and repress other beliefs and practices. Religious pluralism emerged as a result of differing state religions and practices over centuries, the spread of Christianity by missionaries, and the relative tolerance of religious freedom under French colonial administration, including nationalist religious sects that opposed French imperial rule. The communist government set out to co-opt and control religious institutions and has generally repressed independent religious practices and religious freedom as a whole.


Confucianism, a set of ethical and spiritual beliefs that developed in tandem with the Chinese imperial system, was the official religion during the 1,000 years of Chinese rule that began in 111 BC. Buddhism, which increased in influence as a result of trade during Chinese rule, was adopted as the state religion in the 11th century after the country gained independence from China under the name Dai Viet. Buddhism remained the principal religion thereafter. In the 19th century, however, the Nguyen dynasty under Gia Long imposed a strict form of Confucianism (called neo-Confucianism) and repressed other religions.

Roman Catholicism was introduced by Portuguese missionaries beginning in the mid-16th century. As the French gained influence in Indochina, the Jesuit priest Alexandre de Rhodes established a mission and gained numerous converts. Rhodes was expelled in 1630 by Emperor Trinh Trang for fear of growing Catholic influence, but other missionaries were tolerated. By 1841, the Catholic Church reported a total of 450,000 converts. Emperor Napoleon III of France invaded Vietnam in response to requests by missionaries to prevent a slaughter of Catholics by Gia Long. Under direct French rule, Vietnam was generally a place of religious pluralism with tolerance for Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and traditional religions. French tolerance extended to political offshoots of the main religions that opposed both colonial rule and communism, including the syncretic faith Cao Dai (a blend of Catholicism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism founded in 1926) as well as the neo-Buddhist sect called Hoa Hao (formed in 1939). These religious movements adopted firm nationalist stances that put them at odds with the colonial authorities.

After Vietnam was divided in the 1954 Geneva Agreement, there continued to be religious pluralism in the South, but successive authoritarian governments repressed religious activists, especially the Hoa Hao Buddhists, who dissented from the government and often supported the Viet Cong. Incidents of Buddhist monks carrying out self-immolations in protest of government repression influenced American public opinion against the war. In the North, Ho Chi Minh’s consolidation of power included the wholesale repression of religious practices and institutions. The communist government forced religious institutions to express loyalty to the government and abide by its control, including approval of religious appointments and activities. This control over religion was extended to the South after the North’s victory in 1975.

Official Religion in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

The constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam pledges respect for freedom of religion as does the 2004 Ordinance Regarding Religious Belief and Religious Organization. The Ordinance declares that "the State guarantees freedom of religious belief and of religion for its citizens." As in other Communist countries, however, such legal guarantees of human rights and freedoms are trumped by Marxist-Leninist principles of "democratic centralism" and the supreme authority of the Communist Party over all political and social affairs. Government priority is given to the goal of social conformity as laid out by the Communist Party. Individual rights are set aside in the fulfillment of state objectives and official directives. Vaguely worded provisions in the constitution cancel out human rights pledges by prohibiting behavior that undermines national unity, defames public officials and policies, violates existing regulations, or otherwise challenges the political supremacy of the Communist Party. For example, Article 205a of the penal code states:

Any person who abuses freedom of speech, of the press or of religion, or wrongly uses the rights to assembly, association or other democratic rights to encroach upon the interests of the State, social organizations or citizens shall be subject to . . . non-custodial reform for a period of up to two years, or to a term of imprisonment of between three months and three years. factions of religious groups are denied registration and must practice their faiths outside the law.

The Vietnamese government established a central administrative office to govern all state-sanctioned religious institutions;  under the 2004 Ordnance it was renamed the Office of Religious Affairs. The Office regulates all registered religious institutions in their use of property and resources and ensures that each religious organization registers any formal activities, as well as branches, with the local, provincial, and national authorities. There are many registered religious institutions, including Buddhist and Christian groups and the syncretic Cao Dai sect. But these are either government-created or government-controlled versions of religious organizations. Even the Roman Catholic Church, the largest religious institution with six to eight million adherents, traded away much of its autonomy, particularly over clerical appointments, in order to continue its public presence in the country. The officially registered religious organizations agree not only to accept the government's authority over its internal affairs but also to formally affiliate to the Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for social and political movements linked to the Communist Party. Still, adherence to religion is high. Up to ninety percent of the population professes religious belief, with 50 percent identifying as Buddhist, seven percent as Catholic, approximately 2 to 4 percent Cao Dai, and 2 percent each as Protestant and Hoa Hao, among other faiths.

Unofficial Religion in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Independently organized religious groups are denied registration and must practice their faiths outside the law. These include the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), some Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups, and many Protestant congregations that refuse to accept the political requirements for official registration. Most independent Protestant worshippers are believed also to be ethnic minorities. These unofficial religious groups are denied the right to maintain educational centers, train clerical officials, and operate places of worship. Leaders and individual members of these groups have been imprisoned; congregants have been pressured to renounce their faith or switch their affiliations to registered churches; and local officials have mounted campaigns of general harassment against private religious services. In one well-known case, five Hoa Hao members were imprisoned in An Giang province in 2000 for planning an unauthorized gathering to mark the anniversary of the death of the sect’s founder. Four of the five members had also signed a letter protesting government abuses. They received sentences of one to three years in prison for "having abused their right to democratic freedoms, disturbing social order, and opposing public authorities." Ethnic H’mong and other ethnic minorities living in highland areas have reported frequent police harassment and attempts to force them to renounce their Protestant faith.

Current Issues

In 2011, the 11th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party elected the head of the Central Military Commission Nguyen Phu Trung, as its General Secretary. The ascendance of Trung, a long-time party leader who was trained in the Soviet Union, reinforced the control of the security and military services over Vietnam’s politics and governance, and signaled the continuation of a hard line, intolerant policy against political or social dissent.  As the 12th Congress approached in January 2016, it was reported that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who had advocated greater reforms to increase foreign investment (including Vietnam’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership), was challenging Trong for the general secretary position. But Trong was re-elected to another term as general secretary and Dung is being forced to retire, again signaling that there would be little movement towards political reform.

Trong’s hard line has been evident in a crackdown on freedom of expression and belief. Thirty-eight bloggers were arrested in 2012 and twice that many in 2013, including Vietnam’s most famous blogger, Pham Viet Dao, charged with “abusing democratic freedoms.”  New government decrees enacted in 2013 and 2014 gave the state sweeping new powers to restrict speech on blogs and social media. Harsh penalties were enacted for social media and internet users who engaged in “anti-state propaganda” or professed “reactionary ideologies.”  The crackdown continued in 2014. Here is one case reported by Freedom House (2015 Country Report):

In February, the government arrested eight activists, including several prominent bloggers, for minor traffic offenses in an act of intimidation intended to halt a group of 21 individuals on their way to visit arrested human rights lawyer Nguyễn Bắc Truyển. In August, a court sentenced three of the activists — defenders of religious freedoms Bùi Thị Minh Hằng, Nguyễn Văn Minh, and Nguyễn Thị Thúy Quỳnh — to jail terms of between two and three years. Roughly 33 people who tried to attend the trial were detained. . . .

Freedom House reports that the authorities are holding “dozens” of prisoners for reasons connected to their religious beliefs. Overall,

Religious freedoms remain restricted. All religious groups and most individual clergy members are required to join a party-controlled supervisory body and obtain permission for most activities. Those who fail to register their activity with the state are often arrested and harassed. . . .

Human Rights Watch reports similarly that for 2015 “Vietnam’s record for civil and political rights remained abysmal.” It lists dozens of people arrested for defending human rights and expressing their beliefs. Two cases are indicative:

In February 2015, the People’s Court of Dong Nai province put rights activists Pham Minh Vu, Do Nam Trung, and Le Thi Phuong Anh on trial for “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state,” an offense under penal code article 258. They were sentenced to 18, 14, and 12 months in prison, respectively. . . . In September, police in Thai Binh province arrested former political prisoner Tran Anh Kim for “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration” under penal code article 79. Tran Anh Kim had recently finished a five-year, six-month prison sentence in January 2015, also under article 79.

Vietnamese officials did meet with Pope Francis in 2014 to “discuss religious freedom and Catholicism in Vietnam.” The government also allowed the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, to meet with various groups of religious leaders in Vietnam in July. But at the end of his visit, Bielefeldt reported that “serious violations of freedom of religion or belief are a reality in Vietnam.” This is reflected in a proposed new law on religion, which retains all the government’s administrative controls and oversight on religious institutions and activities and fails to protect independent religious sects and practices (see Economist article in Resources). The US State Department continued to designate Vietnam a "Country of Particular Concern" in its Report on International Religious Freedom. (See Resources for links to UN and US State Department reports.)

Freedom of Religion: Country Studies - Nigeria

Nigeria Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Partly Free. Freedom Ranking: 4.5; Political Rights: 4; Civil Liberties: 5.



After gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria had a brief six-year period of elected governments before experiencing more than three decades of political instability and mostly continuous military dictatorship. Nigeria returned to elected civilian government in 1999 and has had four regular presidential and parliamentary elections. Even so, elections were so marred by fraud, other abuses, and chaotic political conditions that Nigeria was not considered an electoral democracy by Freedom House until 2015, following successful presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 and the first successful transfer of civilian power between two political parties. While Nigeria has emerged as the African continent’s largest economy, its economic growth has slowed due to drops in prices of oil, the country’s largest export. The country faces an array of problems, including largescale poverty, corruption, and a campaign of extremist violence carried out by the Boko Harem terrorist group.

Nigeria has around 250 ethnic groups, the largest being the Hausa in the north, the Igbo in the southeast, and the Yoruba in the central and southwest regions. The country is split religiously: about 50 percent of the population is Muslim, 40 percent is Christian, and the rest are adherents of indigenous beliefs. Muslims live mostly in the north and Christians in the south, but every state has a mixed religious population. Although Nigeria has a constitution protecting religious freedom for its different Christian, Muslim, and traditionalist communities, 12 northern states have adopted Sharia law causing tensions with non-Muslims who are forced to abide by its customs.

Nigeria is Africa's 14th-largest country by area and its most populous country, with about 182 million inhabitants (2016 estimate). The population density is high and Nigeria is among the most, urbanized countries in Africa, with about half of the population living in cities. Nigeria is the world's 12th-largest oil producer and has large untapped reserves of natural gas in its Delta basin. Once an agricultural exporter, today it imports a large percentage of its food. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), nominal GDP in 2014 was approximately $574 billion, 21st largest in the world (Nigeria recently surpassed South Africa as the largest economy in Africa). Nominal GDP per capita income ranking was much lower at 125th in the world ($2,758 per annum). Its PPP ranking was similar, 124th ($6,054 per annum). Although poverty remains widespread, the per capita figures are significant improvements from 2006, when nominal GDP per capita was $640 per year (ranked 172nd).


Precolonial Period

The first evidence of human habitation in Nigeria dates to about 9000 BC and it has been home to many ethnic groups. A number of city-states emerged in the first millennium AD and the centuries prior to colonialization, among them Hausa states in the north; the Kanem-Bornu Empire in the northeast; and Yoruba kingdoms in the southwest. In the southeast, Igbo communities developed a decentralized, village-based political system. These and other political structures vied for territory and control of trade routes. The southern states practiced local or regional polytheistic religions, with the leaders or kings often serving as high priests. In the north, Islam spread in the 11th century with the influence of the Kanem-Bornu, Mali, and Songhai Empires to the west of modern Nigeria. In the early 1800s, leaders from the pastoral Fulani ethnic group established an Islamic state in the north and attempted to eliminate pre-Islamic religious practices. The arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century and other Europeans who followed greatly increased the slave trade in West Africa. The Yoruba Oyo kingdom and the Igbo Aro Confederacy were important slave-exporting states dominating southern Nigeria until the 19th century.

Independence Day Celebration in Nigeria.

British Colonization

In the early 19th century, the collapse of the Oyo kingdom created an opening for Britain to expand its trade in the region as well as to limit the transatlantic slave trade, which it had outlawed in 1807. After the British annexed Lagos in 1861, the European powers recognized Britain's claims to southern Nigeria at the 1885 Congress of Berlin. The Royal Niger Company was granted a charter in 1886 to secure a trade monopoly on the Niger River, but the company was replaced in 1900 by a series of protectorates that expanded control of the northern Muslim states. In 1914, the entire territory was then united as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria and placed under a British governor. As the decolonization movement gained momentum after World War II, Britain gradually yielded power. Initially it granted only regional self-governance but nationwide elections were held in 1959. Britain recognized Nigerian independence on October 1, 1960. The following year, the northern region of British-held Cameroon voted to join Nigeria.

The First Republic

Nigeria's first constitution established a parliamentary democracy with a bicameral legislature. Executive power was vested in a prime minister, while a largely ceremonial governor general represented the British monarch as head of state. In 1963, Nigeria became its own fully independent republic and the governor general was replaced with a president. Nigeria was divided into three territorial units — the Western, Eastern, and Northern regions (a fourth Midwest Region was created later) — each having its own state government and premier. The three main political parties at the time of independence were the Northern People's Congress (NPC), which represented the Muslim Hausa and Fulani groups; the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), representing the mostly Catholic Igbo population in the southeast; and the Action Group (AG), a left-leaning party based mainly in the Yoruba-dominated southwest. The first post-independence government was formed by the NCNC and the northern NPC, while the Yoruba-dominated AG was in opposition. The AG split in 1962 with one faction cooperating with the government; it formed the Nigerian National Democratic Party or NNDP. Elections in 1964-65 saw a new alliance of the mostly Muslim NPC and the Yoruba-dominated NNDP, which took power at the expense of the Igb0-dominated NCNC. Riots took place amid evidence of widespread voting fraud resulting in hundreds of deaths.

Dictatorship and the Biafra Tragedy

In early 1966, ethnic Igbo military officers overthrew the NPC-NNDP government, only to be replaced several months later when northern military officers staged their own coup and named Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Christian officer, as leader. Thousands of Igbo living in the north were massacred and many fled to the Eastern Region in the south, while northern Muslims faced retaliatory violence and fled to the north. Gowon tried to thwart growing support for an independent republic among the Igbo by replacing the four administrative regions with a system of 12 states. But the military leader of the oil-rich Eastern Region, Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu, declared independence and created a new Republic of Biafra in May 1967. Federal authorities seized the Niger Delta, the oil producing area of the Eastern Region and blockaded the territory. The Republic of Biafra gained scant international recognition even as suffered a terrible famine. Federal forces finally crushed Biafran resistance in early 1970 but not before one million people died from combat, famine, and disease — one of the post-war world's worst humanitarian disasters. Ojukwu fled the country and the rebel territory was reabsorbed into Nigeria.

The Short-Lived Second and Third Republics

Nigeria then entered 25 years of political instability. Gowon was overthrown in a 1975 coup and that coup’s leader was murdered in 1976. A Christian Yoruba general named Olusegun Obasanjo became military ruler and from 1976 to 1979. Surprisingly, he oversaw a transition to democracy with the convening of a constituent assembly, adoption of a new constitution, and holding of federal elections. The parliamentary system was replaced with a mixed-presidential republic. A new civilian government took power in 1979 led by President Shehu Shagari of the northern-based National Party of Nigeria (NPN). But the next elections in 1983 were marred by violence and indications of massive vote rigging by the NPN, which had lost popularity due to corruption and economic decline. Another coup in December 1983 by General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew the Second Republic. His harsh rule was itself upended in a coup by General Ibrahim Babangida in 1985. Babangida presided over a milder dictatorship leading to a third attempt to create a constitutional republic, but the general reversed course and annulled elections held in 1993 when results favored a Muslim Yoruba promising greater democratic change. Unrest in the south forced Babangida to resign, but an interim civilian leader was quickly ousted by General Sani Abacha. Abacha’s five-year rule took Nigeria to new depths of repression and corruption. severe crack-downs on opposition . . .  civil society and political parties organized popular support for a transition to civilian rule and a more stable democracy.

The Fourth Republic: Another Turn Towards Democracy

Despite severe crackdowns on opposition by the Abacha regime, Nigerian civil society and political parties organized popular support for a transition to civilian rule and a more stable democracy. Opposition groups coalesced in the National Democratic Coalition and worked with the trade union federation and environmental groups to step up international pressure on the regime. When Abacha died suddenly in June 1998, his military successor freed political prisoners and implemented a new constitution based on the 1979 version. In national elections held in February 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, the general who oversaw the country’s transition to civilian rule in the 1970s, won the presidency by a large margin as the candidate of the ethnically mixed People's Democratic Party (PDP). He won re-election in 2003 with 62 percent of the vote, this time defeating Muhammadu Buhari, the former dictator who had emerged as the civilian leader of the northern-based All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP). Obasanjo’s PDP, representing the central and southern regions, was the winner over the ANPP in each of the parliamentary elections.

Under Obasanjo it seemed Nigeria was moving in the direction of a stable democracy. Many freedoms were restored. Independent media and NGO sectors thrived. Significantly, Nigeria became the first African country to fully repay its debt to the Paris Club of creditor nations. His record was marred, however, by corruption, an armed insurgency in the Niger Delta, and ethnic, religious, and communal violence. Obasanjo tried and failed to amend the constitution to allow him a third term, but then rigged the 2007 presidential election in favor of his hand-picked candidate, Umaru Yar'Adua, who defeated Buhari of the ANPP with an implausible 70 percent of the vote. In parliamentary elections, Obasanjo’s PDP obtained similarly inflated totals. International observers reported widespread fraud and unfair electoral conditions. Yar’Adua died in late 2009 and he was succeeded by Vice President Goodluck Jonathon. Jonathon’s first actions brought some renewed hope that Nigeria would return to a more democratic path. He appointed new heads of the security agencies amid complaints of police and military brutality. He also appointed a new chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) with a mandate to prevent further fraud. Jonathon won presidential elections in 2011 and the PDP retook the parliament, but by less questionable margins and with international observers reporting improved electoral practices. Nigeria also saw steady gains in the economy aided by regaining control of the Niger Delta from violent separatists.

President Jonathon’s government, however, was plagued by scandals and charges of corruption. Worse, Nigeria’s political stability and security situation seriously declined due to the rise of the extremist Islamist movement Boko Haram. In 2015 elections, Jonathon was defeated seeking a second full term by Muhammadu Buhari, running for the fourth time. In this instance, Buhari won substantial support not just in his native north but also in the south by promising to end corruption and defeat Boko Harem. Buhari’s All-Progressives’ Congress (a broadening of his earlier party) also gained a majority in the parliament. The elections were deemed free and fair and for the first time in Nigeria’s history there was a peaceful transfer of power between political parties occurring through elections (see Current Issues below).

Freedom of Religion

Nigeria’s kingdoms and territories had a long history of state-imposed religious practices, especially in the Muslim northern regions.  When Nigeria gained independence, however, it adopted a federal constitution declaring the separation of church and state and guaranteeing freedom of religion in recognition of its different religious and ethnic communities and their intermixture in northern, central, and southern regions. In general, the national government has protected freedom of religion for Christian, Muslim, and traditional religious communities, but the adoption of Sharia law by twelve northern states has threatened religious freedom for many non-Muslim residents. More significantly, violent attacks by fundamentalist Islamic groups demonstrate a frightening intolerance of religious differences and religious freedom. The situation is compounded by the often brutal actions taken against the terror attacks by police and security forces. At stake are Nigeria’s political stability, economic growth, and hard-won freedoms. . . Under the British practice of indirect rule, Sharia and other local customs and institutions were built into the governing system.

Before Independence: A History of State Religion

Nigeria had a long history of state-imposed religion. In the south, kingdoms based on traditional indigenous beliefs often fused the roles of religious and temporal leader. With the spread of Islam in the north in the 10th century, religion and governance were also fused. The most influential rule was that of an ethnic Fulani Muslim scholar, Usman dan Fodio, who organized an army to conquer the Hausa states and took over much of northern Nigeria at the beginning of the 19th century. He declared his own Sokoto caliphate, imposed Sharia law, and exercised control over surrounding emirates. Dan Fodio’s caliphate remained intact until Britain imposed colonial control over the north in the early 1900s. Under the British practice of indirect rule, Sharia and other local customs and institutions were built into the governing system, however British administrators prohibited more severe Sharia penalties like death by stoning and amputations. In the south, the British administration directly supported Christian missionary work to provide schooling and other social services. The practice of religious institutions carrying out government functions continued after independence. As significant as its religious administration, British economic policies left the remote north undeveloped, focusing economic development on the south (where oil and other resources were discovered. The inattention to the north contributed to significant social disparities between ethnic and religious groups.

Freedom of Religion After Independence

At the outset of independence, the constitution incorporated the principle of separation of religion and state and declared that the religious freedom of both individuals and communities would be protected. This was important given Nigeria's mixed population: 50 percent Muslim; 40 to 45 percent Christian; and 5 to 10 percent followers of indigenous religious beliefs. While ethnic and religious groups dominated certain areas, there was substantial internal migration during the period of British rule and afterwards. Despite the national guarantees for religious freedom, however, it was often violated locally with religious discrimination practiced in employment, education, housing, social services, and investment. Further, after the 1967–70 war with Biafra, the federal military government took over Christian mission schools and expelled foreign missionaries who were accused of supporting separatism. In 1975, a government Pilgrim Board was established to oversee the Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca, which many viewed as state interference in religious practices. Meanwhile, many northern Muslim leaders advocated a greater role for Sharia, which had largely been confined to civil matters since independence. When General Ibrahim Babangida, a Muslim, made the country a full member of the international Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1986, the action sparked riots by those who objected to categorizing Nigeria as a Muslim nation and feared that it signaled approval of Sharia. Nigeria, there is also variation in how Sharia is interpreted and applied from state to state and among the individual courts.

The Constitution: Striking a Balance?

The 1999 constitution, like previous charters, was adopted only after much debate on the issue of religion. Some leaders sought to impose Sharia on a federal level for all Muslims, while others argued for a secular state. The result was a compromise that left the existing federal arrangement intact: "The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as a State Religion (Section 10)." But under Nigeria's federal system, the constitution also allows individual states to establish their own courts for matters not covered by federal law and explicitly allows states to institute their own Sharia courts of appeal in civil matters. Another provision, Section 38, is subject to differing interpretations. It states that "every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” as well as the “freedom . . . to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance." Advocates of Sharia claim that Islamic law is integral to Islamic "worship, teaching, practice, and observance"; many Christians and secularists argue that Sharia infringes their beliefs and practices.

Re-introducing Sharia

After the restoration of civilian rule in 1999, Sharia advocates began to assert themselves at the state level. In 2000, the governor of Zamfara, in the northwest, implemented a law that extended the jurisdiction of Sharia courts to criminal matters. When President Obasanjo did not challenge the move, eleven other northern states followed suit by adopting some form of Sharia as part of the criminal code. Within Sunni Islam, practiced by most Muslims in Nigeria, there are four major schools of Sharia jurisprudence. The Maliki School, considered a more flexible variant than others, is dominant. Still all four schools adhere, at least on some level, to the punishments for crimes described in the Koran or in the Hadith (the sayings and practices of Muhammad). These include death by stoning for adultery and amputation for theft. (Flexibility may arise from the particular circumstances of a crime.  For example, a thief who steals out of dire need may receive leniency.) While defendants tried within a Sharia court do retain their right under the national constitution to appeal to the federal courts — in two cases, women sentenced to stoning to death for adultery had the sentences overturned in federal court — even so, the introduction of Sharia in states with majority or dominant Muslim populations has fostered tension on several levels. In some cases, as in the city of Jos, this erupted into communal violence, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The U.S. State Department’s International Freedom of Religion Report indicates the breadth of the problem:

Although the jurisdiction of Sharia technically does not apply to non-Muslims in civil and criminal proceedings, certain social mores inspired by Sharia, such as the separation of the sexes in public schools, health care, voting, and transportation services, affected non-Muslim minorities in the north. Many non-Muslims perceived that they lived under the rule of a Muslim government and often feared reprisals for their religious affiliation. . . . 

Growing Fundamentalist Threats

The rise of the fundamentalist Boko Haram has posed a much greater challenge to Nigeria’s religious freedom. The name in the Hausa language means “Western education is sinful.” The group’s founder, Muhammed Yusuf, declared it a religious duty of all Muslims to reject heliocentrism, evolution, and other widely accepted scientific concepts as contrary to Islamic teachings. He also insisted on the strictest interpretation of Sharia and its universal application to Muslims and non-Muslims. The group, initially centered in the northern province of Borno, expanded its territory following sectarian fighting and attacks by security forces in 2009. After Yusuf was killed while escaping police custody, Boko Haram became even more fanatical, violent, and widespread under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau. Boko Haram has terrorized northern regions and cities with attacks on government, civilian, and religious targets (both Christian and Muslim). In 2012, it attacked a U.N. headquarters (killing 25 people). A high proportion of its attacks were directed at “apostate” Muslims, including two of Nigeria’s most respected Muslim clerics. Police and security forces compounded the security problem by responding brutally and indiscriminately to Boko Haram attacks. Government security tactics included sweep searches, mass arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings, and constant harassment and intimidation of communities suspected of harboring militants. In one incident in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, 180 people were killed indiscriminately. 

Current Issues

In April 2014, Boko Haram sparked international outrage when it abducted nearly 300 girls in a northern village and threatened to sell them into slavery for having attended school. Nearly a hundred of the girls escaped, but the rest were forced into sexual bondage or to marry Boko Haram militants. Since that abduction, Boko Haram carried out a spree of kidnappings and vicious attacks and bombings in both the north and south on police and army units, villages allowing the education of girls, and civilian and religious targets, both Christian and Muslim. By the end of 2014, Boko Haram was the world’s most deadly terrorist group. (According to tracking by the Institute for Economics and Peace, Boko Haram attacks were responsible for 6,664 deaths while Islamic State attacks murdered 6,063 persons. In 2015, Boko Haram remained as deadly, but Islamic State greatly surpassed it in numbers of persons killed.)

President Jonathon presided over a number of government scandals and suspicions that he was tolerating graft at the highest levels increased when he fired the head of the Central Bank in mid-2014 for publicly stating that widespread siphoning of oil revenues was taking place. Mostly, however, President Goodluck Jonathon’s government came under increasing criticism for the ineffective military efforts to stem Boko Harem’s terror campaign and prevent its expanding control over northern regions. From its strongholds in Nigeria, Boko Haram had even begun attacking targets of Nigeria’s neighbors, especially Chad but also Niger and Benin. In addition, military forces continued to be accused of heavy-handed tactics and carrying out recrimination attacks on villages held by the terrorist group.

After running unsuccessfully for president three times previously in 2003, 2007, and 2011, Muhammadu Buhari mounted a fourth campaign for president as the candidate of a renamed and reconstituted party, the All-Progressives Congress. A former general and dictator in 1983–85 who was overthrown due to the harshness of his rule, Buhari pledged to uphold Nigeria’s democratic constitution, end corruption, and defeat Boko Harem. The elections were postponed six weeks by the security forces out of concern for terrorist attacks, but international observers indicated that the delay did in fact help the Election Commission ensure fairer elections. Buhari won the elections on March 31 with 55 percent of the vote and his All-Progressives Congress won a large majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate. The elections were seen as significant both for Nigeria and also for Africa. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, there was a transfer of civilian power through elections.

After taking office in May, Buhari fired two heads of the military services and a number of other top officials. He moved the military headquarters to the northern capital of Borno, Maiduguri to begin a renewed campaign against Boko Haram. Assisted by a Multinational Joint Military Task Force spearheaded by Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, the military campaign began to retake a number of cities and villages under Boko Haram’s control. By December 2015, President Buhari declared the “technical” defeat of Boko Haram in fulfillment of his campaign pledge, although the group continued to hold significant territory and mount deadly terrorist attacks on a regular basis in both the north and south. In a new tactic, Boko Haram began deploying women and children wearing suicide bomb vests to carry out the attacks. At the end of 2015, it was estimated that 2 million people were displaced and 15,000 people had been killed from the overall conflict involving the terror group.

Buhari began to crack down on corruption as well, ordering national projects to be suspended pending review of all contracts. A former national security adviser was arrested in relation to a reported $2.1 billion in funds siphoned from the military.  In October 2015, the government arrested the former oil minister and the chairman of a Nigerian oil company on charges of corruption and money laundering. The central bank governor testified that billions of dollars had disappeared “from activities related to the oil industry,” the source of 80 percent of all government revenues. The amount, he said, could be from “10.8 or $12 billion or $19 billion or $21 billion — we do not know at this point.”

Freedom of Religion: Country Studies - USA

United States of America Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Free. Freedom Ranking: 1; Political Rights: 1; Civil Liberties: 1. 


The United States is the world's oldest continuous democracy among nation states, with governments elected under its Constitution since 1789. Its democratic tradition, however, dates to the earliest English settlements in the 17th century that were founded on the principle of consent of the governed (see Section 1) and then developed politically around elected representative assemblies. America's constitutional structure includes separation of powers; checks and balances on the three branches of government; federalism (decentralization of power to the states); an independent judiciary; and guarantees for basic rights and due process of law. America’s democratic tradition also includes high levels of participation in civic life and the extensive exercise of individual liberties, including free expression and religious freedom.

The country's history also includes the brutal and ruthless treatment of Native Americans and the practice of slavery, which was abolished only after protracted political conflict and a bloody civil war from 1861–65. Discrimination against African Americans, as well as other minorities, was institutionalized in law and practice for another century. The civil rights movement that overcame this legal discrimination is considered today a worldwide example of civic achievement, but its prolonged struggle and unfinished achievements reflect the great difficulty of overcoming entrenched injustice even in the world’s oldest democracy. (See also History sections in Free Elections, Majority Rule, Minority Rights, and Human Rights.) In fact, recent elections have seen increased restrictions on voting rights that affect minority, poorer and older voters with impacts on both local and national races. Further, recent presidential elections raised questions about their democratic character, since the Electoral College system determining the outcome denied the national vote winner for the second time in sixteen years, in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes.

America's origins are  rooted in struggles of religions freedom and America remains one of the most religious countries among the developed countries.

America’s origins are rooted in struggles of religious freedom (see below) and America remains one of the most religious countries among the developed countries. The latest survey of the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life in 2014, however, shows that the US is becoming significantly less religious since its last survey in 2007 (see link in Resources). Some 89 percent of Americans surveyed still described themselves as religious believers but only 77 percent (down from 83 percent) were affiliated with an organized religion. Of all adults, 71 percent considered themselves Christian (down from 78.4 percent). Of these believers, 21 percent are Roman Catholic and 46 percent Protestant. Other religious affiliations accounted for 5.7 percent of the population, the two largest being Judaism and Islam (1.9 and .9 percent, respectively). “Unaffiliateds” made up an increasing percentage of the population at 23 percent (up from 16 percent), with 11 percent considering themselves atheist or agnostic, and the largest number being in younger generations.

From its beginnings, the country expanded westward from its East Coast states, a process that was propelled dramatically by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 that ended the Mexican-American War. Both extended US territory to the Pacific Ocean. As settlers moved across the continent, the government forcibly displaced original inhabitants, Native Americans, and forced them onto territory known as reservations but constituting separate nation states. Today, the US’s 48 contiguous states are bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Canada, and Mexico. There are two discontiguous states: Alaska, northwest of Canada, which was purchased from Russia in 1867, and Hawaii, an island chain in the mid-Pacific annexed in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. The US also possesses several small self-governing island territories (Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and Guam), unorganized islands, and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The US is the third largest country in the world (after Russia and Canada) at a total area of 9.6 million square kilometers and the third most populous country (after China and India) at 323 million people (the 2016 government estimate). According to the International Monetary Fund, the US’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014 was $17.3 trillion, $7 trillion higher than the world's second-ranked economy, China. Nominal GDP per capita in 2015 was $55,904, ranked 5th highest in the world.


The Colonies as Religious Refuge

Several of America's original English colonies were established as refuges for religious dissidents. The first were the 102 survivors of the Mayflower voyage, known as Pilgrims, who established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. The group was made up of “separatists,” a faction of the larger Puritan movement who favored separation from the Church of England as the best means to cleanse Protestant worship of Roman Catholic influences and structures. While not violently persecuted in England, separatists were harassed and threatened with fines or imprisonment. Other Puritans later came to agree with the Pilgrims' attempts to create an ideal religious community away from England and took the same voyage to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The two groups united theological positions in 1648 as Congregationalists, so called because they believed in the autonomy of each church congregation created by the voluntary choice of its members.

As England's colonies in the New World expanded, many religious groups sought similar refuge to practice their beliefs free from the persecution and social ostracism they experienced in Europe. These included Protestant sects from various countries, including Anabaptists, Presbyterians, and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), as well as Catholics and Jews.

The Origins of Religious Freedom as a Principle of Governance

Some religious groups, believing theirs was the truest expression of Christianity, were as intolerant of others as their European government persecutors had been of them. A number of colonies established official religions and imposed restrictions barring other practices. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are well known for their strict observance and authoritarian character, but they were not the only group to insist on conformity. At the time of the country's founding, nine of the 13 states had official or state-subsidized religions and laws restricting other religious observance.

Front plate of a 1661 Book describing the repression of Quakers.

Pennsylvania took a different path. Its dominant religious group, the Quakers, were persecuted in other states for their adherence to beliefs that clashed with those of mainstream colonial society. As a result of their experience, they adopted a belief in toleration of other monotheistic sects. William Penn, a Quaker leader who established the colony of Pennsylvania, instituted a Frame of Government (1682) declaring that citizens

. . . shall in no ways be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice, in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.

The Frame of Government was an early landmark in the history of constitutionally protected religious freedom. Pennsylvania became a haven for many small Central European sects, including the Amish, Mennonites, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, Moravians, and some German Baptist groups.

Religious Belief and the Founding of the Republic 

The American Revolution was motivated in part by a desire to protect the religious autonomy enjoyed by many communities against British control. Some advocates of the Revolution were millennialists who believed that defeating the “evil” British would bring about the second coming of Christ. Others, like the famous Boston preacher Jonathan Mayhew, asserted that it was a Christian's duty to oppose tyranny, thus offering a religious justification for political action. The cleric Abraham Keteltas described the American Revolution more starkly as “the cause of heaven against hell — of the kind Parent of the Universe against the prince of darkness and the destroyer of the human race.”

Thomas Jefferson believed that such religiosity, reflected in many states’ laws, had led the fledgling country to a dangerous point of intolerance. His own state, Virginia, had imposed penalties, including death, for deviant religious observance (the law was aimed especially against Quakers and Baptists). He set out in the 1786 Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom — and then in debates over the Constitution — to establish the broadest possible definition of religious freedom (see also Essential Principles and History). Some of the Founders had embraced the idea of adopting a national state religion, but Jefferson, joined by James Madison and others opposed to a strong national government, won the debate. As a result, Article VI of the Constitution prohibits religious tests for federal office, while the First Amendment bans the establishment of an official religion and guarantees the freest exercise of religious worship.

George Washington stated that in relation to any religious faith that the new republic would give ‘to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’

“To Bigotry No Sanction”

President George Washington and Vice President John Adams were both among those who believed in a role for religion in national life, but they were also strong supporters of religious liberty and the clear separation of religion from the state. George Washington’s views regarding the role of the state and religion were most famously stated in his pledge in 1790 to the Jewish congregation of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (one of the oldest in the world). He stated that in relation to any religious faith that the new republic would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Among the first treaties signed by the US government were with the predominantly Muslim Barbary States in North Africa aimed at ending the acts of piracy that threatened trans-Atlantic trade. The 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, signed by Washington and then approved by the Senate after Adams became president in 1797, declared in Article 11 that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion and it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” This provision, and its justification by President Adams as necessary to demonstrate the neural intentions of the US government towards a predominantly Muslim nation, is often cited as a clear, early statement that the US is a secular state and its government is religiously neutral.

A Wall of Separation Gives Rise to Many Religious Traditions

As president, Thomas Jefferson argued for an even broader constitutional doctrine. He stated that not only should there be no established religion but also that the state’s practices should not favor religion in any way and in this way guarantee the “freest exercise thereof.” In a letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association in 1802, he wrote that there should be “a wall of separation between church and state.” That phrase has since been cited in many Supreme Court decisions on religious issues as a clear intent of the wording of the First Amendment.

As president, Thomas Jefferson argued for an even broader constitutional doctrine that . . . there should be ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’

The flourishing of religious practices and beliefs did not mean an end to religious persecution: many acts of violence and repression of religious groups are a matter of record. Religious bigotry and discrimination of Jews, Roman Catholics, non-traditional Protestant sects, Muslims, and practitioners of Asian religions was common in American society. Still, throughout the United States and for most of its history, religious institutions, societies, and practices flourished. A wide variety of religious institutions and beliefs — including new ones like the Church of Latter Day Saints and 7th Day Adventism — generally found a haven in the great expanse of territory stretching to the Pacific Ocean. Most Americans practiced Protestant Christianity, but Catholicism thrived as immigrants from predominantly Catholic countries like Ireland and Italy arrived in the US. African Americans established their own denominations due to discriminatory practices of Protestant churches, including the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and black Baptist congregations. Judaism became more widely practiced with immigration from Eastern Europe of Jews escaping pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and subsequently those escaping from Nazi tyranny. (Today the United States has the largest diaspora population of Jews in the world.) Practitioners of other faiths like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, among others, also found a home in the US and have recently grown in number with new immigration.

Religious institutions had more than a spiritual function in American history: they served as important community organizations and formed the bulk of private humanitarian and social service organizations in America. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, religious institutions were a community bulwark of democracy capable of mobilizing citizens to act on their own behalf and on behalf of others. He wrote that “all citizens in the United States . . . believed religion to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

Freedom of Religion

As noted above, the basic principles of freedom of religion in the United States are grounded in Article VI of the Constitution barring a religious test for federal office and the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the exercise therof. . . .” This broadly declared freedom allowed full practice of many different religious faiths. Often, however, the principle of separation of church and state has fallen into conflict with America's popular religiosity. There have also been difficult constitutional debates involving how freedom of religion should work in practice and form the subject of an ongoing national discussion that has often been determined by decisions of the Supreme Court. Several decisions reflecting the complex issues of religious liberty are discussed below.

Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.

Freedom of Religion, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court

Early decisions of the Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment's Establishment Clause as applying only to the federal government, which left the individual states with the option of maintaining their own official religions. In the end, the states decided the issue: all disestablished their respective churches from the state by the 1830s. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted soon after the Civil War, has since been interpreted as applying all the protections of the Bill of Rights — including the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in the First Amendment — to the states.

Still, many issues remained unclear. In the 1878 case Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court validated a federal law against polygamy despite a Mormon man's claims that the practice was for him a religious duty. The Court, referring to language in Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists (see above), found that while the Constitution barred Congress from interfering in religious “opinion,” it was empowered to regulate “actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.” Reynolds has remained an important precedent for laws against polygamy and other religious practices that violate social norms as established in law.

The Principle in Detail

The case reflecting contemporary debate and thinking about the meaning of the Establishment Clause was Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing (1947), which involved a New Jersey taxpayer's objection to public funds being used to reimburse the transportation of Catholic students to a private school. By a 5–4 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the practice as furthering a legitimate state purpose (the education of all children), but all nine of the justices agreed with a sweeping opinion in which Justice Hugo Black articulated the Supreme Court’s current understanding of the Establishment Clause:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, [or] for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”

This was the first Supreme Court ruling to definitively apply the Establishment Clause to the states using the 14th Amendment. Future decisions, upholding the Everson ruling, would end obligatory prayer and Bible reading in public schools as well as the government payment of private school teachers' salaries (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971). But the legal status of situations on the outer boundaries of these cases continues to be debated. On a single day in 2005, the Supreme Court interpreted Lemon v. Kurtzman and other precedents in such a way as to strike down one display of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse as unconstitutional (McCreary County v. ACLU), and uphold another display of the Ten Commandments as part of a monument outside the Texas State Capitol as constitutional (Van Orden v. Perry). Each ruling was based on subtle differences of context and intent.

Current Issues

Some critics of the Supreme Court believe it has gone too far in restricting or diminishing the role of public religious observance, arguing that the founders never intended the Establishment Clause to forbid government acknowledgment of religion or religious expression within a government context. Others argue that the historical record is clear on the founders’ intent to separate church from state and believe these principles have been compromised by the recent decisions allowing displays with religious themes on public property.

In other debates, the Establishment Clause forbidding the state’s favoring of any religion continues to come into conflict with the Free Exercise clause of the first amendment prohibiting state interference in the practice of religion. While Reynolds v. United States set the precedent for the assertion of the primacy of the state’s laws against polygamy in determining community norms over religious practice, many other cases have created a complex of rulings.

For example, the Supreme Court ruled in Sherbert v. Verner (1963) that the complainant (Adell Sherbert) could not be denied unemployment compensation after being fired for refusing to work on Saturdays, something prohibited by her 7th Day Adventist religion. The majority opinion established the “Sherbert Test” that an individual should not be pressured to violate or alter the exercise of his or her religion by imposing a government penalty or withholding a government benefit except in the case of a compelling state interest narrowly tailored in law (a standard called “strict scrutiny” by the court).

In 1990, however, the original Reynolds standard was given greater weight. In Employment Division v. Smith, the majority opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia upheld the state of Oregon’s right to fire employees for banned drug use in a case involving two members of the Native American Church fired for peyote use they claimed was required by religious rituals. Scalia argued that the original Reynolds standard should apply whenever a law was neutrally based and applied to all persons (in this case banning peyote as a dangerous drug) and not itself designed to prevent a specific religious practice. Otherwise, he argued, “anyone could establish the law unto himself.”

Both religious liberty and civil liberty groups, usually on opposite sides of Establishment Clause rulings, objected to the ruling. As a result of their joint public lobbying, Congress passed the Restoration of Freedom of Religion Act (RFRA) in 1996 to create a statutory basis for preventing government from restricting specific religious practices, thus restoring the “Sherbert Test” in federal law. The Supreme Court has since ruled that the RFRA applies only to federal law and cannot be applied to the states.

More recent decisions have added to the debate over the meaning and scope of religious liberty. In June 2014, the Supreme Court ruled narrowly (5-4) that under the RFRA private and for-profit corporations should not be forced to provide coverage for specific contraception under rules of the Affordable Care Act enacted by the Obama Administration if it violates their religious beliefs or practices (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). The majority ruled that since the government had established mechanisms by which religious non-profit groups could technically exclude themselves from providing contraception and abortion coverage to employees while still providing health insurance, the same should apply to “closely held” (i.e. private) for-profit corporations. Two other 2014 rulings ruled on the controversial issue of gay marriage that states could not ban marriage between same-sex couples or refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, in effect legalizing gay marriage and banning discrimination of same-sex marriage. Religious liberty groups have argued that the decision acts against those who believe on religious grounds that same-sex marriage should be banned and states should have the right to do so. (The majority opinion in polls in recent years has leaned towards sanctioning same-sex marriages, which had been legalized in 23 states before 2014.)

The above description of religious freedom cases is not exhaustive but is illustrative of the continuing debates over worship, belief, and state coercion in regards to religious practices and beliefs. They indicate the considerable complexities surrounding religious freedom — especially in relationship to other freedoms — both in the United States and generally. They also indicate the political conflicts that these debates cause. What remains clear from US history, however, is that religious freedom has been an essential principle of its democracy.

Freedom of Religion: History


A Brief Survey of Major Religions

Until recently, the state and religion were closely intertwined, with religion used not only as a basis for internal governance but also as justification for expansion abroad. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans, among others, invoked their various polytheistic gods to support wars and expansion. In each empire, religious devotion was a key component in establishing loyalty to the ruler. Even democratic Athens could not tolerate dissent from its official polytheistic beliefs, sentencing the philosopher Socrates to death on charges of corrupting young with teachings about “other gods.”

The major religions that are practiced today have been central elements of different empires and autocratic systems. Hinduism, a polytheistic religion that emerged in India in the second millennium BC, was an integral belief system for dynasties and kingdoms throughout South and Southeast Asia. Buddhism, founded in northern India in the sixth century BC, was similarly adopted as an official religion by various expansionist monarchies in the region. Chinese emperors oversaw a complex of religions and practices (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and traditional beliefs), but all were fused to justify imperial rule. Although religion was suppressed at the outset of Communist rule in China in 1949, most people today maintain some elements of these former state-supported religions or practice Christianity, which was introduced by Western missionaries in the 18th century. Today, Hinduism, Chinese traditional religion, and Buddhism constitute the world's third, fourth, and fifth largest faiths. They have an estimated 1 billion, 500 million, and 400 million followers, respectively.

Christianity, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, and Islam, with 1.6 billion followers, are the world’s two largest religions. Both are monotheistic and each expanded significantly through conquest or adoption as an official state religion. In the case of Christianity, its adoption by Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century AD expanded the faith throughout the Roman Empire. In the case of Islam, it spread by war and the creation of caliphates in Damascus and Bagdad in the 7th and 8th centuries AD. The Baghdad (Abbasid) caliphate was later assumed by the Ottoman Empire, which served as the organizational foundation for adherents of the Sunni branch of Islam throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Each faith experienced major schisms that resulted in bloody internecine wars, while Christian and Muslim states and empires engaged each other in centuries of intermittent combat in Europe, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere.

Banner showing diverse religious symbols

Judaism, the world's oldest monotheistic faith, originated between 3,400 and 4,000 years ago. Jews initially formed a state with Jerusalem as the capital, which remained at the center of their religious and political life until AD 70, when the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in the wake of a rebellion. For the next two millennia, Jews scattered in a worldwide diaspora, often experiencing persecution by governments and populations adhering to other faiths. In the 19th century, a Zionist movement arose in Europe encouraging migration back to Judaism’s birthplace, then known as Palestine, with the aim of reestablishing a Jewish state. Following Nazi Germany's murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust during World War II — two-thirds of European Jewry — the United Nations approved a plan in 1947 to create Jewish and Arab states in the territory of Palestine. The state of Israel was established the next year on lands settled by Jews from the diaspora during the 19th and early 20th centuries. (The Arab League rejected the two-state solution, leaving the creation of a Palestinian Arab state unresolved to this day.) Today, Israel has 7.8 million inhabitants, of whom nearly 6 million are Jewish (see Israel Country Study). Approximately 7 million Jews live in diaspora of whom 5.5 million live in the United States. 

Throughout most history, countries had an official religion and religions expanded and contracted based on the military conquests or defeats of empires and nation states. The official religion was a key element of the state's legitimacy and policy practices. The ruler was generally regarded as a spiritual leader, often as the worldly representative of the divine or as someone governing with the approval of a divine power or divine mandate. Those who adhered to other faiths, especially ones that rejected the legitimacy of the established ruling authority, were often persecuted in their practices. It is only in recent centuries that states have allowed freedom of religion, whereby no specific beliefs or observances were required of citizens. In democracies today, even those with official state religions, freedom of religion and conscience is considered a basic right. Below is a discussion of how this understanding developed.

The Reformation and Religious Wars 

In Europe, the principle joining the state to religion was expressed in the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio, literally "whose realm, his religion." In other words, the religion of the ruler would be the faith of his subjects. This principle meant that the Roman emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the fourth century led to Christianity’s recognition as the official religion of the empire, now based in Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The emperor remained the titular head of Christianity in the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, based in Constantinople, however the Holy See in Rome and its bishop, the pope, remained the ultimate authority of the Catholic Church. The Byzantine Church, which broke from Roman Catholicism in 1054, served as the forerunner of today's various Eastern Orthodox Churches, which generally conform to political borders and are at least loosely tied to the state. Meanwhile, following the fall of Rome to barbarian invasions in the fifth century, the papacy emerged as a supranational entity that exercised authority over all of the defunct Western Roman Empire and the lands to the north. Monarchs or rulers who accepted Western Christianity (Catholicism) had to recognize the pope's religious supremacy. The Church reserved the power to excommunicate disobedient rulers, sanction crusades, and combat heresy through institutions like the Inquisition. In accord with the Church, most European monarchies adopted anti-Semitic laws and practices. Jews were expelled from England, Spain and other countries from the 13th to 17th centuries. In that period, only the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth afforded religious freedom and sanctuary to Jews. is only in recent centuries that states began to allow freedom of religion whereby no specific beliefs or observances were required of the population.  

In 1517, Martin Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses, which served as the spark for the Reformation, a schism in Christianity between Roman Catholicism and what came to be known as Protestantism. The Ninety-Five Theses challenged the spiritual and temporal authority of the pope, the leader of Western Christianity. He was especially critical of the selling of indulgences (absolution from punishment for forgiven sin) by the Church, a practice widely used by priests and bishops, including the pope, to raise money both for Church projects and for themselves.

Luther’s protest gave rise to “Lutheranism” as well as other new state Churches and sects within Christianity that rejected the moral authority of the pope and renounced Roman Catholicism as the official religion in order to form a purer congregation tied more closely to a country or community. The schism led to repression, internal conflicts, and wars between states. Catholic minorities in Protestant states were seen as agents of the Pope or foreign Catholic rulers, who in turn viewed their Protestant minorities as disloyal heretics. Protestant governments also faced challenges from more radical sects and movements, such as the Puritans in Britain. Catholic and Protestant states, vying for both temporal and spiritual supremacy in Europe, engaged in a series of bloody religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries that devastated many countries. During the Thirty Years' War alone, from 1618 to 1648, as much as a third of the population in German principalities perished.

The religious wars ended through a number of important treaties and decrees that established a foundation for religious freedom between and within states in Europe. The Union of Utrecht in 1579 established a united and effectively independent Protestant Netherlands from Spain. Henry II’s Edict of Nantes in 1598 in France granted civil and religious rights to Protestants (although these were later rescinded). And, most importantly, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War, reinforced the earlier principle that each state had the right to establish its own religion but also encouraged greater tolerance within states of different religious practices. In England in 1534, Henry VIII declared himself head of the national Church of England and separated it from the Vatican. After a century of clashes over religion in the British Isles, the Act of Toleration, adopted in 1689 as part of The Glorious Revolution, expanded religious freedoms to “Nonconformists,” which meant Protestants who did not accept the Church of England but who pledged allegiance to the state. Although the Act of Toleration excluded from protection Catholics and Dissenters (Protestants who would not pledge allegiance to the state), it was a step toward an acceptance of different faiths outside the Church of England. 

The Rise of Liberal Democracy and Freedom of Religion

The emergence of religious freedom as an individual right was due in part to exhaustion from wars in Europe, but it was also a product of the Enlightenment, a period of scientific and philosophical discovery in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries in which scholars placed a new emphasis on human reason as the basis of knowledge. Just as theologians of the Reformation had challenged religious authority and tradition to seek out what they believed was a truer relationship with God, Enlightenment thinkers questioned the established wisdom of their time in an attempt to uncover the fundamental laws of nature. The Enlightenment's scientific focus sparked the rise of Deism, a form of non-denominational monotheistic belief that rejected supernatural revelation and divine intervention in the world, instead imagining God as the rational architect of the universe. Deism was espoused by many of the founders of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson, who viewed the varying institutional forms of religion and worship as a matter of personal opinion and saw any state involvement in religion as coercive or corrupting. When it came to religious belief, he argued, each man was accountable only to "his God."

This was more than a theoretical matter for Jefferson. The American colonies were refuges for dissenters of established religions --- radical Protestant sects that arose in Anglo-Saxon countries and clashed with the dominant Lutheran or Episcopal faiths; the Protestant Huguenots fleeing renewed repression in France; Catholics fleeing persecution from Britain; among others. Yet they often encountered intolerance again in the New World. Witnessing the repression of Quakers and other minorities in states that had adopted restrictive laws on religion, including his own Virginia, Jefferson saw a fundamental contradiction between the political liberties being adopted in the new country seeking independence from Britain and its ongoing religious intolerance. He believed this contradiction posed a threat to its survival. In 1786, the Virginia Legislature passed the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom drafted by Jefferson. It declared that:

[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested,
or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess,
and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

The Constitution's First Amendment, adopted as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, built these ideas into the nation's legal foundation: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . ." For the first time in history, a formal separation of church and state guaranteed everyone the right to worship as his or her conscience dictated. the 20th century and especially during its decades of rising totalitarianism, the use of religion for political purposes took new

Tolerance for a variety of religious beliefs, freedom of conscience, and separation of church and state, were once revolutionary ideas that are now established in the constitutions and practices of liberal democracies, even those that retain state religions. The principle of religious freedom and freedom of conscience is also embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, today religious freedom is not universally respected in many parts of the world. Many authoritarian states continue to repress religious minorities, while many states continue to fuse religion and the state within a repressive state structure. Religious intolerance continues to fuel many conflicts and wars. In liberal democracies, including the US, there continues to be conflicts over interpretations of religious liberty (see discussion below and the United States Country Study in this section). 

Freedom of Religion and Modern Dictatorship

As noted above, religious persecution has had a long history and it continues in many parts of the world. Where freedom of religion is not respected, typically the government is a form of dictatorship. 

In the 20th century and especially during the decades of totalitarianism’s rise, the use of religion for political purposes took new forms. The Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini of Italy was antireligious, but to consolidate power he obtained a formal agreement from the Roman Catholic Church in 1929 that granted moral legitimacy to his government in return for concessions to the Vatican, which remained its own state structure. The agreement included making Catholicism the state's official religion. The Nazis adopted a strict racist ideology of Aryan supremacy that superseded religion. Christian denominations were forced to choose between subservience to the Nazi state or persecution. While some clergy and lay activists resisted Nazism (and often were sent to concentration camps as a result), most churches and religious officials, whether out of sympathy for or fear of the Nazi state, did little to resist its tyranny and often assisted in implementing its worst policies. As part of its racist ideology, Nazi Germany (as well as Fascist Italy) subjected their minority Jewish populations and those of conquered states to persecution, imprisonment, deportation, and ultimately mass murder. Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, carried out as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

Communism did not attempt to co-opt religion, at least at first. Instead, communism attempted to abolish religious beliefs and replace them with its own materialist ideology. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks destroyed churches, arrested and killed many priests, and banned observance of all faiths. Communist China similarly destroyed places of worship and religious relics and symbols. But when it suited their purposes, Communist regimes reinstituted religion. After Nazi Germany invaded and threatened to overrun the Soviet Union, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin looked to the Russian Orthodox Church to rally support for what is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. He reopened churches and restored the Russian Orthodox patriarchate, or church leadership, on condition that it accept the Communist regime's political authority. Thereafter, religious institutions were allowed to function in the Soviet bloc but frequently as state instruments and always under strict supervision. Religious officials, including Islamic clerics, were handpicked by the state and often served as police agents or informers. Independent churches in Communist countries were outlawed and repressed.  In the Soviet bloc, only the Roman Catholic Church in Poland retained its formal independence, hierarchical authority, and an officially unimpeded relationship to the Vatican. As Poland’s only independent institution, the Church served as a model and inspiration for the trade union Solidarity (see Poland Country Study).

Falun Gong deity

The inclusion of freedom of religion in the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and, more importantly, the spread of democracy in the last fifty years resulted in much greater respect for freedom of religion in the world and tolerance of different faiths within nation states, even in countries where there remains a formally state-recognized religion. But there are also many current instances of religious repression and intolerance by dictatorships around the world: China's brutal crackdown on the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement based on meditation; Vietnam's campaign against minority Protestants; and state-sanctioned attacks on rival or non-Muslim sects in Iraq; among many other examples (see Country Studies and Resources). Hostility to the Jewish migration to Palestine and the establishment of Israel fueled a high level of anti-Semitism in Arab states and other predominantly Muslim countries. As a result of this hostility, Israel has endured five wars and ongoing terrorist attacks on its citizens, while Jews in diaspora in many countries have been the object of state repression and social ostracism, leading to their emigration to Israel (see Country Study).

Antidemocratic Ideology and Majority Views

In recent years, extreme variants of Islamism — a political ideology arising out of Islam  that calls for the rule of government according to a fundamentalist interpretation of the principles or laws of Islam — have emerged as a new anti-democratic phenomenon threatening freedom of religion. In many countries, more moderate Islamist groups have organized as political parties and worked within democratic electoral systems to pursue the fulfillment of religious goals (see, for example, Country Studies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Tunisia, and Turkey). But dictatorial states that join religion with state governance like Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have encouraged more extreme interpretations of Islam both within their own countries and abroad. The export of such interpretations of Islam has coincided with the rise of extremist groups who have recruited and mobilized cadres of terrorists to wage jihad — war or violent attacks on both governments and civilian populations in pursuit of a theocratic dictatorship or restoration of the Islamic Caliphate (a central religious authority governing all Muslims). 

Often this extremist violence is directed at the United States, Europe, and Israel, all three of which are blamed for supposedly humiliating the Islamic world or subjugating it to modernity and liberalism, which extremists consider anti-Islam. Generally, extremists have been politically unsuccessful in gaining state power and their jihadist beliefs are held only by a minority of Muslims. However, they have gained increasing adherence and influence in politically unstable countries such as Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. In recent years, a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has gained control over substantial territory and declared a caliphate, the Islamic State. It has also spread a substantial number of its armed fighters to conflict-ridden areas like Libya. In territory under its control the Islamic State has instituted a regime of terror, massacring thousands of Christians, Yazidis (adherents of an ancient monotheistic sect), Shiites, and any Sunnis who are judged to be apostate in their practices by refusing to abide by the rules dictated by the Islamic State. Extremist groups in other countries are endangering such diverse communities as Sephardic Jews, Egyptian Christian Copts, and Maronite Christians. In Afghanistan, the fundamentalist Taliban held power for a decade and continues to use violence to try to overthrow that country’s incipient democracy.[T]his extremism goes against another historical tradition within Islamic countries of tolerance of other religions. Indeed, the rise of extremist sects does not reflect the majority view in most Muslim communities. . .

There is a growing intolerance in some Muslim communities towards liberal principles of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech. The publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed in a regional newspaper in Denmark in 2006, for example, resulted in violent demonstrations around the world demanding the censorship of any such images (see History in Freedom of Expression). Many disenfranchised minority Muslim communities in Europe where messages of intolerance are frequently spread by extremist clerics have become recruiting grounds for the Islamic State, which, in addition to its horrifying campaign of terror in Syria and Iraq has carried out terror attacks aimed against the West and freedom of expression.

It should be stressed that this extremism goes against another historical tradition within Islamic countries of tolerance of other religions. Indeed, the rise of extremist sects does not reflect the majority view in most Muslim communities. For example, while a large majority of Muslims may favor adoption of Sharia law, this represents a broad spectrum of religious views and coincides with a large majority that expresses support for tolerance of different religious beliefs and practices in the communities they live. A world survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life has found definitive majority support among Muslims in most countries for democracy, human rights, and economic freedoms and against extremism (see Resources for links to Pew Research Center studies).

Freedom of Religion: Essential Principles

Essential Principles

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom
to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in
public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."

UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, 1948 

For most of world history, emperors and kings based their legitimacy on claims of divinity or divine approval. Differences in religious beliefs between rulers and within states were the cause of wars, revolts, and persecution. While few world leaders explicitly claim divine legitimacy today, religion remains a central factor in many of the world's conflicts. Countless innocent lives have been lost because of a fundamental lack of respect for freedom of religion and an intolerance of people with different beliefs. long history of brutal religious wars in Western Europe helped give rise to the modern notion of religion as a matter of individual conscience, rather than an official policy of the state.

The long history of brutal religious wars in Western Europe helped give rise to the modern notion of religion as a matter of individual conscience, rather than an official policy of the state. Continued persecution of different religious sects arising from the Protestant Reformation led to widespread emigration to the New World, especially the American British colonies, where the concept of freedom of belief for individuals became one of the core ideas of American democracy. Thomas Jefferson set forth the basis of this core idea in the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, stating that individual belief was one of “the natural rights of mankind.” From this fundamental maxim, the Virginia Statute declared that no government should be established based on religious belief and that the religious belief of individuals should never be coerced by the state — a declaration later incorporated into the Bill of Rights.

Without the ability to think, believe, and worship freely, and without the principle of toleration of others' beliefs, there can be no democracy. Conversely, stopping citizens from exercising their free choice in religion or spiritual belief can only be accomplished through dictatorial power and terror. 

In most democracies, freedom of religion has meant the end of religious persecution and mass conflict based on religious differences. Even where there are state-sanctioned or state-favored religions (such as the Church of England in the United Kingdom and British Commonwealth countries, Islam in Indonesia, or Roman Catholicism in Mediterranean and Latin American countries), freedom of religion has become a democratic norm. Democratic societies have been generally tolerant of individuals and communities practicing minority faiths without discrimination.  

The transformation of religion from a justification for war or for a state's existence into an object of political liberty and individual conscience is one of the most important stories of modern history and is at the heart of the development of liberal democracy (see History). But it is a story that is still unfolding. Even in democracies where constitutional protections exist for religious freedom, there remain many tensions over the meaning and practice of religious liberty, especially when it concerns religious minorities (see, for example, Country Studies of France, Netherlands, and the United States, where these tensions have been heightened due to political movements and government policies aimed at restricting immigration or religious practice for Muslims). 

And, of course, religious freedom is hardly universal, while some recent developments have reversed progress towards religious freedom. The violence inflicted on Christians, Yazidis (adherents of an ancient monotheistic faith), and Muslims by the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) is among today’s extreme examples of religious intolerance. Islamic State adherents are attempting to impose a single terrorizing vision of Islam on anyone under their self-declared caliphate and wage a terrorist war on all those considered apostate. ISIL, al Qaeda and other extremists commit atrocities in Nigeria, Indonesia, Mali, Tunisia, and numerous other countries, including the US. In addition to such non-state actors, many state dictatorships impose official religions that impinge greatly on individual freedom of conscience (see Country Studies of Iran, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia). Religious intolerance extends farther. Blasphemy laws that have been enacted in many countries with a dominant Muslim population are generally used to repress not just atheists but also religious and political minorities. Such laws have created an oppressive atmosphere both for freedom of conscience and also freedom of speech (see History in Freedom of Expression). as freedom of religion is often considered a threat to dictatorship, it can be an important safeguard of democratic society.

The examples of antidemocratic ideology and governments above illustrate the need for freedom of religion and the basic separation — either formally or in practice — of religion and state. Without such a separation, religious institutions have historically become either repressive political instruments or compromised entities that are unable to fulfill their proper functions. Dictators view freedom of belief as a threat because it can undermine individual obedience and mobilize societal opposition to their rule. Indeed, independent religious institutions have been part of many recent movements for broader political freedom, including those in Chile, Poland, and South Africa. Just as freedom of religion is often considered a threat to dictatorship, it can be an important safeguard of democratic society. Democracy requires a diversity of views and choices, an environment in which differing opinions can be debated freely. This would be impossible without respect for freedom of conscience and of worship.

Freedom of Association: Study Questions

Suggested Study Questions and Activities

Teachers: The following are questions and activities that can be given to your students after they read the materials in each section. The questions are meant to be asked as a review exercise, although some encourage critical thinking as well. The activities can be presented as classroom exercises or as individual homework assignments. Unlike the questions, they tend to require additional research. Some call for students to create mock trials or debates that would engage the entire class. Both the questions and the activities are formatted so that they might be used directly by students, although you may rewrite them as you feel necessary.

Essential Principles


Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that in democratic countries, "The art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased." (Book II. Chapter 12.  Democracy in America.)  What does Tocqueville mean by this comment? What other forms of free association can you think of? Where has freedom of association generally been respected and where have states tried to repress this freedom? In democracies, do you think extremist groups should be free to associate? On what basis should groups be banned, if at all?


See Freedom House and Freedom House reports on worker rights in the US and globally. How does the US record on protecting freedom of association compare with those of other major industrialized democracies in the last twenty-five years? In the last 10 years? Why do you think this is the case? Search through the news to find examples of protests, strikes, and demonstrations that support your findings.



What role did freedom of association play in the history of democracy in Chile? How did citizens' and workers' associations act to bring democracy back to Chile in 1988–90? How have labor rights fared in Chile’s “Second Golden Age of Democracy”? What role are students playing today in Chile?


Read Chile and Tunisia Country Studies to compare the role of trade unions in each country in bringing about democracy. Has the freedom of association situation improved or worsened in each country? What events have had an impact on freedom of association? How have workers and others responded?



What has been the political role of trade unions in Tunisia? What role did it play during the struggle for independence during the colonial period? In achieving independence? During the Bourguiba and Ben Ali dictatorships? And in the Jasmine Revolution? What role has it been playing in the transition in Tunisia? Why did the National Dialogue Quartet win the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015? How did the political history of the labor movement in Tunisia affect its role in society since the Jasmine Revolution?


Using the Country Study and Resources section, review accounts of the National Constituent Assembly’s debates over the new constitution (see, for example Tunis Times, Open Democracy.Net, Economist, New York Times, among other sources). Answer the following questions: What were the key issues being debated? How have these issues been resolved? What is the debate between secular and religious parties in Tunisia? How has the transition process in Tunisia differed from Egypt, which also experienced a revolution during the Arab Spring? What has marked the Tunisia transition process?



What was the role of freedom of association in imperial China? Were there independent groups? In the Republic of China? In the People’s Republic of China? How has the People's Republic of China suppressed freedom of association and the development of free trade unions? What are current examples of suppression of freedom of association?


Review recent articles and other materials posted on China Labour Bulletin. Answer the following research questions: How have workers in China exercised their rights to freedom of association and protest in recent years? Has this resulted in independent trade unions being organized? What is the role of the ACFTU (All-Chinese Federation of Trade Unions). Read commentary and watch presentation by CLB director Han Dongfeng. What does he propose as a strategy for Chinese workers to achieve their rights?

Review specifically articles related to U.S. firms in China, such as Walmart, Apple, and Google. How do American companies behave in China? Do they respect rights of freedom of association?

Freedom of Association: Resources


Essential Principles

"A Short History of American Labor." American Federationist. March 1981.

Economic Policy Institute.
     “Do Workers Still Want Unions: More Than Ever” by Richard Freeman, February 22, 2007.

Freedom House. “The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World” (link).

Human Rights Web. "A Summary of United Nations Agreements on Human Rights." (link).

Human Righs Watch. “Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the US.” (link).

International Labour Organization. Home Page, About, and Fundamental Conventions and Ratifications.

International Trade Union Confederation. Home Page.

Lipset, Seymour Martin
     "Some Social Requisites of Democracy." The American Political Science Review. 53, 1 (Mar., 1959). pp. 69-105 (link).
The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited: 1993.” American Sociological Review. 59, 1 (Feb., 1994), pp. 1-22 (link).

The New York Times. “Building Collapse in Bangladesh Kills Scores of Garment Workers.” May 14, 2013.


Economist magazine: Topics Index: Chile.
     “Damage Control in Chile: Michelle Bachelet’s Reluctant Retreat.” October 24, 2015.
     "Reform in Chile,” May 24, 2014.
     “Lessons From the Students.” April 14, 2012.

The New York Times: Times Topics: Chile. See, e.g.:
     “A Chilean Ex-Soldier Guiltily Recalls His Units Atrocities.” February 28, 2016.
     “Daughter-in-Law of Chile’s President Faces Corruption Charges.” January 29, 2016.
     “On Election Day, Latin America Trades Machismo for Female Clout,” December 15, 2013.
     “Chile Recalls Coup With Flurry of Events and New Openness,” September 9, 2013.

BBC. “Chile Student Protests Resume as 100,000 March.” April 11, 2013.

Kellogg Institute. Working Paper #298: "The Labor Movement in Democratic Chile, 1990–2000," by Frank K. Volker, June 2002.

Recommended Films
“No” (2012). Directed by Pablo Larraín.


Economist magazine. Topics Index: Tunisia. See, e.g.: 
“Tunisia After Elections: Spring is Still in the Air.” October 25, 2015.
“Tunisia’s Coming Elections: The Dealmaking Begins,” June 24, 2014.
“Tunisia’s Constitution: It Still Sometimes Feels Like Spring,” January 16, 2014.
“The Salafist Struggle.” January 1, 2014.
“Let the Scent of Jasmine Spread,” Leader.”January 11, 2011.

The New York Times. Times Topics: Tunisia.
     “Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia.” October 9, 2015.
     “Arab Neighbors Take Split Paths in Constitutions,” January 14, 2014.

Human Rights Watch: World Report: Tunisia: 2016.

Encyclopedia Britanica. “Jasmine Revolution (with Timeline)” (link).

Nobel (the official website of the Nobel Prize)
     Presentation of Nobel Peace Prize to the National Dialogue Quartet (Dec. 10, 2015).
     Nobel Prize Lecture delivered by the National Dialogue Quartet members (Dec. 10, 2015).

Tunis Times

Open Democracy.Net
"The Heritage of Farhat Hached Sixty Years After His Assassination.” by Rob Prince. December 5, 2012.


Economist magazine. Topics Index: China.

The New York Times
     “China’s Resolve to Muzzle Rights Lawyers.” December 22, 2015.
     “Chinese Activists Test New Leader and Are Crushed,” January 16, 2014.
     “Survey in China Shows a Wide Gap in Income,” July 20, 2013.

Albert Shanker Institute. “Chinese Labor Movement: Which Way Forward?” (link).
     Video presentation by Han Dongfeng, director of the China Labour Bulletin. 2014.

Binyan, Liu. “Living in Truth.” The New York Review of Books. July 17, 1997.
     A review of The Courage to Stand Alone by Wei Jingsheng. Viking: New York, 1997.

China Labour Bulletin (Home Page).  
     "In China, Labour Activism Is Waking Up.” May 14, 2014.
     “A Decade of Change:  The Workers’ Movement in China: 2000-2010.” March 2012.

Human Rights in China: Home Page.

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2016: China.

International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC, previously ICFTU).
     "Internationally Recognized Core Labour Standards in the People's Republic of China: 2010. Annual Report for the WTO." (link).

Jingsheng, Wei
     “The Fifth Modernization” (PDF version made available through the Asia for Educators page at the East Asia Institute of Columbia University).

Freedom of Association: Country Studies — China

China Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 6.5; Political Rights: 7; Civil Liberties: 6. 

Summary and History

See Country Study of China in Section 10, "Freedom of Expression."


Freedom of Association

For most of Chinese imperial history, there is little evidence of free association as it is generally recognized in Western societies. Even religious organization and practice was officially tied to the state and the worship of the emperor. Chinese guilds and independent trade unions emerged in the 19th century, but these were later politicized during China’s political struggle between the Nationalists and Communists. In the People’s Republic of China, trade unions were made into an instrument of the Communist Party and state. Workers have no formal rights to freedom of association and efforts to organize free trade unions during and after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 were wiped out in the government crackdown. Since then, workers and other citizens continue to try to organize independent actions, initiatives, and groups but the China’s police state works continually to suppress them.

The Rise of the Chinese Guilds

Around the beginning of the 19th century, workers of like skills organized a new form of independent organization called guilds, which were also common in Europe among skilled craftsmen. The first to organize were tinsmiths, 13 of whom founded the Cassia Society in 1800. The guild opened itself also to coppersmiths when tin and copper shops merged. Membership increased rapidly with the demands of a growing shipbuilding industry following the Opium Wars in the middle of the nineteenth century. By 1920, there were 40,000 members. In addition to being the recruiters of skilled labor, the Cassia Society and other guilds served as community centers for religious, social, and cultural observances and inspired the creation of Chinese friendship societies and loan associations. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the guilds were the only organizations capable of challenging foreign authority in their control over parts of the Chinese economy.

Voting in a Chinese union today..

Trade Unions and their Politicization

In 1906, Ma Chaojun, an apprenticed mechanic from Hong Kong and a follower of Sun Yat-sen, was sent by the Chinese revolutionary leader to Guangdong province to organize what is considered China's first modern labor union, the Guangdong Mechanics' Association. This marked the beginning of a long period of politicization of China's labor movement. The success of the 1911 revolution and the establishment of the Republic of China were ensured in part by strikes led by workers in Shanghai associated with Sun Yat-sen’s nationalists.

After the revolution, Sun Yat-sen placed Ma Chaojun in charge of the national labor movement. Other political parties also actively partook in labor organizing. When General Yuan Shikai replaced Sun Yat-sen as president of the Republic in 1912, he banned strikes and tried to restrict worker organization. From that point, the labor movement split among nationalist, Communist, and organized crime groupings. During a brief United Front period in the 1920s, union organizing flourished, but it benefited mainly the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Upon Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek took over the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party. After a coup attempt in April 1927, Chiang renounced the United Front and the nationalist government executed many of the CCP leaders and set out to destroy both the CCP and its General Labor Union. In place of the General Labor Union, the KMT established what were known as "yellow unions" tied to criminal gangs, China’s strongest economic force at the time. After the 1937 Japanese invasion, a second United Front allowed the CCP rebuilt its worker support. At the end of World War II, the CCP took advantage of postwar conditions of hyperinflation and unemployment to gain workers’ allegiance to its revolutionary platform.

The Communist Takeover and State-Controlled Unionism the CCP's takeover in 1949, the Chinese labor movement lost any independence.

After the CCP's victory and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese labor movement lost any independence. The CCP placed all unions under the control of the state-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which functioned as an arm of the party instead of representing workers' interests. In 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, the ACFTU was dissolved as Mao denounced unions as "counter-revolutionary." It was reconstituted again in 1978 under Deng Xiaoping and since then has continued to serve as the sole legally sanctioned union federation.

The ACFTU is organized according to the Soviet principle of "democratic centralism," under which lower-level branches must be guided by higher levels. The ACFTU itself is guided by the Communist Party. ACFTU representatives often hold senior management positions in state-owned enterprises and top positions in the CCP. Until the latest party congress, the union's chairman has been a member of the Politburo. In the last decade, the ACFTU has tried to extend its reach to private and foreign companies and the migrant worker population. At the local level there have been stirrings of independent activity but these are generally not sanctioned by ACFTU policy or practices (see below).

Workers Protest Against Communist Control

Workers have not easily submitted to this system. As in the Soviet Union, there were many cases of industrial unrest in which workers rebelled against the control of the Communist Party and the official union federation. But worker rebellions were brutally suppressed. In response to ongoing labor unrest from 1949 to 1952, for example, the Communist Party organized several ideological campaigns to repress workers. In 1957, during the brief Hundred Flowers Movement, workers protested the use of trade unions as an instrument for fulfilling the first Five-Year Plan (1953–57) and established Grievance Redress Societies. When the Hundred Flowers Movement was suddenly stopped by Mao Zedong for fear of the growing discontent, these societies were a target of repression during the subsequent Anti-Rightist Campaign, which labeled the workers "bad elements."

Chinese migrant worker

In 1978, a brief “Democracy Wall” movement arose in which activists used a brief loosening of censorship to post large character banners with news and articles along the wall of a major Beijing street. After initially encouraging the Democracy Wall postings as a means of fostering Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations (see Country Study in Freedom of Expression), officials quickly eradicated the Democracy Wall as activists went further to call for human rights. The most famous wall posting was by Wei Jinsheng, an electrician, whose eloquent editorial called “The Fifth Modernization” advocated democracy and worker rights as indispensable to the other four modernizations. Along with many others, Wei was arrested but targeted for special treatment as a worker activist. Before being forcibly exiled in 1997, he spent a total of eighteen years in prison over two decades, mostly in isolation and without treatment for worsening medical conditions (see Resources for link to a review of Wei’s memoirs by Liu Binyan). 

In 1989, workers joined with students in the Tiananmen Square protests that spread throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of workers created branches of a new Worker Autonomous Federation (WAF). When the regime cracked down, one of its key aims was the total suppression of WAF. Its leaders were arrested, along with thousands of worker activists. One of its leaders, Han Dongfang, was imprisoned and deliberately exposed to tuberculosis. As a result of international labor protests, he was released and forcibly exiled to seek treatment. 

The Beginning Era of Communist-Capitalist Fusion 

The Four Modernizations begun in 1978 propelled China on a path of unprecedented economic growth over more than 30 years. China’s growth was fueled mostly by export-driven expansion and an enormous transplant of manufacturing jobs from the US and EU foreign companies seeking cheaper labor costs. For the first twenty years of growth, labor costs were kept extremely low by abundant labor and urbanization. Economic modernization ended China’s so-called “iron rice bowl,” an idiom referring to the previous policies of guaranteed life employment and social welfare benefits from state enterprises. Shutdowns and reorganization of state-owned enterprises put 30 million workers out of work in the 1980s and 1990s. Additionally, millions of Chinese sought to escape rural poverty by seeking employment in the growing manufacturing sector that fused private and state initiatives. Migrant labor increased from 50 million workers in 1990 to 250 million workers by 2010. 

The conditions of work in China’s manufacturing sector, especially in private and foreign-owned companies, resembled some of the worst practices found in the early days of industrialization in the West (see History). The U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO, chronicled these working conditions in annual petitions to the U.S. Trade Representative, arguing that the rampant violation of ILO standards constituted unfair trading practices by China according to U.S. trade law. In a 2004 petition to the U.S. Trade Representative (see reference in Resources), the AFL-CIO reported on migrant working conditions: 

[Migrants] often step into a nightmare of twelve-hour to eighteen-hour work days with no day of rest, earning meager wages that may be withheld or unpaid altogether.... [F]actories are often sweltering, dusty, and damp. Workers are widely exposed to chemical toxins and hazardous machines, and suffer sickness, disfiguration, and death at the highest rates in world history. They live in cramped cement-block dormitories, up to twenty to a room. . . . They typically face militaristic regimentation, surveillance, and physical abuse by supervisors during their long day of work and by private police forces during their short night of recuperation in the dormitories. Ten to twenty million workers in China are children. No one knows the precise number, because statistics of that kind are state secrets, and anyone disseminating such data is subject to criminal punishment. Another one to six million are detained without fair trial and forced to labor in China's prison system, under threat of violence and torture. 

The New “Workers Movement” Han Dongfang wrote in 2007 in the China Labour Bulletin still remains accurate: ‘Chinese workers urgently require three basic tools: the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike.’

Despite such conditions and the ongoing repression following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, workers continued to organize protests and independent unions, including the Free Labour Union of China, the League for Protection of the Rights of the Working People (LPRWP), and Hired-Hand Workers' Federation in Shenzhen. None survived for long, however. Even locally based organizations were suppressed. In Liaoyang City (Liaoning Province), several thousand workers marched in 2002 under the banner of the Liaoyang City Unemployed and Bankrupt Workers Provisional Union to demand a government investigation into corruption that had bankrupted their factories. Arrests of the workers' representatives led to larger protests, but they subsided when the union’s leaders were sentenced to years in prison.

Starting around 2000, as the ever-increasing growth in manufacturing ultimately created a labor shortage, there was an upsurge of spontaneous worker protests and wildcat strikes sometimes involving tens of thousands of people lasting weeks and even months. The China Labour Bulletin, started by Han Dongfang, the exiled leader of the Workers’ Autonomous Federation, chronicled 90,000 mass actions and 30,000 actual strikes by workers over the period of 2000–10 (see Resources). As a result of these protests, state authorities amended the labor law in 2007-08 to increase the minimum wage and to broaden coverage of collective contracts represented by the ACFTU over individual employment contracts, which were the norm in private and foreign-owned enterprises. In 2010, workers launched strikes at several Japanese-run Honda parts factories that resulted in trend-setting agreements to improve wages (to an unprecedented $300 per month). This trend has continued. In 2012-13, for example, news spread of worker mistreatment at subsidiary factories in China that made Apple’s signature iPads. The U.S.-company, embarrassed by the revelations, agreed to improve its employment practices. In early 2014, Walmart had to suspend its closings of factories and stores due to worker blockades. In this case, even local ACFTU officials backed the worker protests.

Still, improvements lag well behind Western standards. As of 2013, the overall average annual income had risen only to $2,100 per year (see The New York Times article “Survey in China Shows a Wide Gap in Income.”). There has not been a substantial increase since then. Although there are now some instances of local representation of worker interests, the ACFTU overall continues to act as an agent of the state with the main purpose of controlling the workforce. Independent unions remain anathema to China’s socialist hybrid economy. What Han Dongfang wrote in 2007 in the China Labour Bulletin still resonates: 

The days of the socialist planned economy in China are long since gone, and the reality today is that many millions of workers have been left to sink or swim in an economy dominated by private capitalism. In order to keep their heads above water in this new environment, Chinese workers urgently require three basic tools: the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike.

New Citizens’ Initiatives and NGOs

Over the last decade, the Chinese authorities allowed the registration of more non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Economist reports that at the end of 2013, there were 500,000 registered “NGOs” as well as millions of informal associations. Most officially registered organizations, however, are service organizations that supplement state services. They operate under strict supervision and are forbidden to receive foreign donations. They are also required to include Communist Party members or officials in their structures. Advocacy organizations or organizations seeking to deal with taboo subjects (such as the Tiananmen Square massacre) are generally banned. Still, many citizens have registered legal and other organizations that press for local and national policy changes, defend migrant workers, or educate citizens on various issues.

One notable initiative, the Citizens’ League (Gongmeng in Chinese), was started in 2003 by Xu Zhiyong, Yu Jiang, and Teng Biao “to promote constitutionalism and the rule of law in China.” In short, they advocated for greater civil rights in accordance with China’s own constitution and laws. Gongmeng defended wrongfully convicted defendants, including an entrepreneur who had legally raised funds for a humanitarian campaign. It also started an education rights campaign for migrant workers whose children are denied public education based on their inherited household registration (or residency) status. Xu even won election to a local council as an independent candidate taking advantage of openings in the local election laws. In May 2012, Xu published an essay encouraging citizens to use their civil rights under China’s legal system, sparking what is called the “New Citizens Movement.” The authorities have responded quickly to repress it. Xu was arrested in July and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. He was charged with “disrupting public order” for organizing education rights and local anti-corruption campaigns. In the last half of 2013, other leaders of the movement were imprisoned and sentenced to at least two years’ imprisonment, including Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, and Zhao Changquing, and Zhang Baocheng (see “Chinese Activists Test New Leader and Are Crushed,” in New York Times links in Resources).

Several activists connected with the New Citizens Movement were also sentenced in 2016. One leading member, Liu Jiacai from Hubei province, was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power” in articles posted online and in public gatherings of fellow activists. 

The Free Union Movement's Oasis: Hong Kong

One area where free trade unions have continued to exist is in the Autonomous Region of Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1997 under a Basic Law that guarantees respect for a number of freedoms under a policy of "one country, two systems." (See also Country Study in Freedom of Expression.) Until 1990, the union movement was a political battlefield between nationalist and Communist unions, reflecting the early history of China’s politicized trade unions. But a new independent movement emerged under the banner of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), with nearly 160,000 members, including textile workers, dockworkers, teachers, and government employees. The HKCTU, although under increasing pressure from Beijing, does not shy from criticizing the PRC, and its leaders are strong pro-democracy spokesmen, independent from any state or party. The founder and long-time leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Teachers, the late Szeto Wah, also helped initiate the Democratic Party and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which has served as a focal point for Hong Kong’s civil society to turn back anti-democratic initiatives as well as the organizer of the annual commemoration of the June 4 suppression of the Tiananmen Square. Demonstrations. In 2014, the 25th anniversary of the events, 500,000 Hong Kong citizens participated in a candlelight vigil despite police threats of use of force to prevent the gathering.

Current Issues

See Country Study of China in Section 10, "Freedom of Expression."