The U.S. State Department's annual report on religious freedom worldwide, issued Friday, is sharply critical of the record on that issue of Uzbekistan, Iran and China among others. But it credits several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam with improvements.
The State Department report is mandated annually under the International Religious Freedom Act approved by Congress in 1998. And this year's edition followed by just a few days the fifth anniversary of the September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.
At a news conference introducing the report, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the events of 9/11 made Americans more aware of their religious diversity, and more determined to honor the ideals of a democratic society that protect and respect religious differences.
"Religious freedom is deeply rooted in our principles and our history as a nation," said Ms. Rice. "And it is now integral to our efforts to combat terrorism and the ideology of hatred that fuels it. In today's world, our goal of fostering religious freedom and tolerance beyond our borders is an essential component, even, of national security."
The document, based on reporting from U.S. diplomats and non-governmental organizations covers nearly 200 countries and territories around the world.
The 1998 act of Congress provides for sanctions against those deemed to be the worst violators of religious freedom.
Last year, the list of so-called "countries of particular concern" included China, Eritrea, Iran, Burma, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam.
U.S. Ambassador-at-large for Religious Freedom John Hanford told reporters the State Department will not announce a new list for a matter of weeks, a move that presumably will give time for last minute talks with countries that may be cited.
But under questioning he strongly suggested that Uzbekistan could be added to the list, saying the authoritarian Central Asian government was already the most restrictive in the region and had added "outrageous" amendments to the state law governing religious practice.
He said the law restricts non-Muslims, and that even Islamic groups have come under suspicion of links to political extremists.
"The most serious problem over the last few years in Uzbekistan has been the inappropriate arrest of some Muslims who are simply observant, maybe praying five times a day," he said. "Perhaps they have a beard, and just on the basis of these outward signs, they are suspected of having terrorist ties. And in some cases, these people have been horribly treated."
The report said China's respect for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience remained poor, especially for religious groups and spiritual movements that are not registered with the government.
It said there was further deterioration of the extremely poor status of religious freedom in Iran, and that the situation had worsened following the election of hard line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year.
It said despite nominal guarantees for Iranian religious minorities, government rhetoric and actions had created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all those who do not practice Shia Islam.
The State Department credited the government of Saudi Arabia, even though it still bans religious practice outside of the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam, with efforts to curb intolerance. Ambassador Hanford said this includes action to eliminate negative references to other faiths in school texts, and public declarations by Saudi leaders:
"We are very encouraged by the position of the Saudi government and by their responsiveness, as well as by a number of statements that have been made by King Abdullah, which I think are forward-leaning within that context: promoting tolerance, standing up before the whole Organization of Islamic Countries and issuing a call for greater tolerance. So we see things moving in the right direction," he added.
The report credited Vietnam with significant improvements in religious freedom in the past year, propelled by commitments the Hanoi government made to the United States in an exchange of letters in May 2005.
Ambassador Hanford said despite documented human rights abuses in Darfur, there was an improvement in religious freedom for Sudanese Christians and others in the southern region stemming from last year's north-south peace accord.
He said while the country's national-unity government and legislature now include non-Muslims, problems continue concerning efforts to impose Islamic Sharia law on all those living in the capital, Khartoum.