A State Department report on religious freedom world-wide Wednesday listed Iran, North Korea and U.S. Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, as among the worst violators of religious rights. A number of countries were credited with steps to protect religious practice.
The annual report is required under a 1998 act of Congress, and the countries violating religious freedom could be subject to U.S. sanctions.
But State Department officials say the goal is not punitive action, but to encourage countries to improve their record in the key human rights area.
At a press event launching the report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called religious freedom a fundamental human right and a core element of U.S. foreign policy.
"With this report, we do not intend to act as a judge of other countries or hold ourselves out as a perfect example," said Hillary Clinton. "But the United States cares about religious freedom, we have worked hard to enforce religious freedom, we want to see religious freedom available universally, and we want to advocate for the brave men and women who around the world who persist in practicing their beliefs in the face of hostility and violence."
Of the nearly 200 countries assessed in the report, eight are listed as CPC's or Countries of Particular Concern: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Afghanistan.
The list is unchanged from a year ago but it is to be reviewed in the next few months.
Iran has been a CPC each year since the first report was issued in 1999. The new report says the Tehran government continues to severely restrict non-Sh'ia religious minorities, and that Baha'is are particular targets.
It said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued a virulent anti-Semitic campaign, questioning the existence and scope of the World War II Nazi extermination campaign against Jews.
The report said flatly that religious freedom does not exist in North Korea and that religious activists are among the country's vast political prisoner population.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner said that given the communist state's self-imposed isolation, little leverage can be brought to bear on North Korean authorities.
"The human rights situation in North Korea is desperate, and so on every measure it is a country that is a consistent violator of human rights," said Michael Posner. "We will continue to raise those issues publicly in whatever ways we can and try to encourage other governments to do the same."
The report cited incremental improvement in some aspects of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. But Posner said the public practice of non-Muslim religions remains prohibited, and that the Saudi government has not acted on pledges to rid textbooks of religious incitement.
"It has done some of that, but there still continues to be in the Saudi textbooks, references, very negative, stereotypical references to Christians, Jews and others, which regard as offensive," he said. "These are real concerns. We obviously have a range of other interests as well with the Saudis. But this is part of human rights policy. We will continue to raise these concerns."
Some positive trends were noted in China, first designated as a CPC in 2004, though Secretary Clinton cited ongoing harassment of Tibetan Buddhists, unregistered Christian groups and Uighur Muslims.
Clinton said religious freedom is under assault not only from authoritarian governments but violent extremist groups like al-Qaida that seek to inflame sectarian tensions, noting recent bombings of Sufi mosques in Pakistan and a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad.
While listing abuses, the report also praised several countries for actions promoting tolerance, including an agreement under which Laotian officials will get religious freedom training, the rebuilding of a Jewish synagogue in Beirut wrecked by shelling in the Lebanese civil war, and Indonesia's sponsorship of an interfaith dialogue.
Sanctions authorized under the religious freedom legislation have rarely been invoked.
In a statement Wednesday, the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, also set up by the 1998 law, urged the Obama administration to act decisively and name additional countries of concern - something it has yet to do.