The term "theocracy" comes from the Greek word theokratia, which is a compound word that combines theos, which means "god," and kratein, which means "to rule." A theocracy, therefore, is a form of government in which rule is directed by the belief in a god or by certain religious beliefs. It might also be the case that the head of a theocratic government is the head of a specific religion, as in the case of Vatican City. Theocratic rulers are guided specifically by their religious beliefs and might see themselves as emissaries of their god who are meant to rule their people.
Theocracy vs. Ecclesiocracy
In the strictest sense, a theocracy has a ruler who claims to be guided by his or her god, such as through direct revelation. When this is the case, laws and declarations made by the ruler are considered by the ruler's followers to be divinely revealed or inspired. A similar type of government is an ecclesiocracy, which is when the government is controlled by a church or religion but the leaders do not claim to be in direct communication with or to receive revelation from God. Instead, an ecclesiocratic government's leaders might rule based upon religious beliefs, tenets and interpretations. Despite the differences between these types of governments, ecclesiocracies typically are considered to be theocracies in a general sense.
History of Theocracies
During the Middle Ages, many monarchies were at least partly theocratic. Decisions of rulers in Catholic countries, for example, were often questioned and dismissed if the popes of the time disagreed with them. Religious leaders frequently advised rulers on matters of both government and religion.
This began to change as Protestantism and other non-Catholic religions gained influence in certain countries. Many countries still might have official religions or have leaders who are advised by religious figures, but these conditions alone do not meet the definition of a theocracy. In addition, governments in countries where the population is overwhelmingly made up of members of a particular religion might resemble theocracies even if they actually use other forms of government.
As of 2011, most of the world's governments that were considered to be theocracies were Islamic states. Among these were the governments of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Vatican City is a Catholic theocracy with the pope as the head of its government.