The U.S. Congress has again focused attention on violations of religious freedom around the world. A congressional committee on Wednesday examined an annual report by the State Department that identifies countries of particular concern.
This year's report, released in September, covers more than 190 countries where religious freedom is either severely restricted or faces other barriers or levels of official intolerance.
It designates eight as Countries of Particular Concern (C.P.C): Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.
Of these, Burma came in for particular criticism at Wednesday's hearing of the House International Relations Committee hearing.
Republican Congressman Joseph Pitts said "the military dictatorship of Burma is a prime example of a government whose policies and practices blatantly violate religious freedom and other fundamental human rights."
Three countries are new to the list: Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
The House of Representatives approved legislation earlier this year (the Vietnam Human Rights Act) criticizing human rights and religious freedom violations by the government in Hanoi.
Republican Congressman Chris Smith, a key sponsor, says repression in Vietnam has grown worse. "We must not remain silent while the government of Vietnam continues to persecute religious and political dissidents and ethnic minorities," he said.
John Hanford, the State Department's Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, says a new Vietnamese government law is another cause for concern. He says that while the law, announced last June, recognizes the right of citizens to their beliefs, nonetheless is cause for concern:
"There has heretofore not been something at the level of a law which grants this degree of religious freedom," he said. "But it also makes illegal the abuse of freedom of religion to undermine the country's peace, independence and unity and of course our fears is this sort of language will wind up being abused."
Ambassador Hanford says he is still trying to verify the extent to which the Saudi government has revised textbooks to remove defamatory and offensive material about non-Muslims, saying he has received mixed reports about this.
California Democrat Tom Lantos laments what he calls the late decision by the State Department to list Saudi Arabia as a country of concern. "This designation was delayed and delayed despite the fact that no nation in the world has persecuted the practice of religion more than Saudi Arabia except its own brand of extremist Islam," he said.
Preeta Bansal, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says improvements in Saudi Arabia mentioned in the U.S. report may be overstated.
"Certainly the Saudi government's propagation of a particular brand of Islam, Wahabism, has propagated terrorism throughout the world. It is an ideology that promotes hate, violence, terror," she said.
The U.S. religious freedom report notes changes for the better in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. But there have been instances of attacks against churches and Christians in Iraq, and Ambassador Hanford and other witnesses say the Iraqi and Afghan governments need to guard against religious intolerance.
Preeta Bansal, of the International Commission on Religious Freedom, says the U.S. report is too positive, adding more work is needed to ensure the Iraqi and Afghan constitutions fully protect religious freedom:
"We believe the Afghan constitution was a very important missed opportunity and it's sorely lacking in the kind of protection that we hope finds its way into the Iraqi constitution," she said.
On Iran, another country of concern, Ambassador Hanford says religious minorities, including Bahai, Jews, Sunni Muslims, and Christians continue to face imprisonment, harassment, intimidation and discrimination.
On China, he says the United States continues to be concerned about the Chinese government's treatment of political prisoners as well as religious and ethnic minorities.
"The government continues to repress Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Catholics faithful to the Vatican, and underground Protestants. Many religious believers are in prison for their faiths, and others continue to face detention, beatings, torture, and the destruction of places of worship," he said.
Witnesses also voiced concerns about Eritrea. Paul Marshall is senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House.
"Pastors, soldiers, women, children and the elderly who fall outside the four recognized historic faith groups in that country continue to be jailed and frequently abused for worshipping, or reading the bible, or praying together," he said.
Also mentioned during the hearing was religious persecution and human rights violations in Turkmenistan as well as Sudan.
Ambassador Hanford noted continuing Sudanese government attempts to impose Islamic Sharia law in some parts of the country, along with discrimination against non-Muslims. While the United States recognizes violence by Arab militias against Africans in Darfur as genocide, he says it is not seen as falling in the category of religious persecution.