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US Religious Freedom Report Faults North Korea, Eritrea, Iran

A U.S. State Department report on Friday listed North Korea, Eritrea and Iran as among the world's leading violators of religious freedom. Some easing of conditions was reported in Saudi Arabia, though that key U.S. Arab ally remained on a list of so-called countries of particular concern. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The annual State Department report on religious freedom, mandated by an act of Congress, is widely considered to be the most authoritative single document on the subject.

The latest report, containing 800 pages and covering 198 countries and territories, commends a number of countries including Vietnam, Turkmenistan, Iraq and Jordan for taking steps over the past year to promote tolerance or lift curbs on religious practice.

But eight countries were cited as countries of particular concern for especially-serious violations and are subject, if applicable, to U.S. aid penalties. Those countries are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan - the same grouping as last year.

At a news conference presenting the new report, State Department Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom John Hanford said conditions in North Korea are especially severe. "North Korea remains among the world's most egregious violators of religious freedom. The cult of personality surrounding the ruling family remains an important ideological underpinning of the regime, at times resembling tenets of a state religion," he said.

Hanford said some of North Korea's political prisoner population of as many as 200,000 detainees are held for religious reasons and said reports indicate their treatment is worse than other inmates.

The U.S. envoy noted incremental improvements in religious freedoms in Saudi Arabia though it was not sufficient to end that county's now four-year presence on the list of countries of concern.

He said the Horn-of-Africa state of Eritrea has an abysmal record of abuses - arresting, detaining, torturing and even killing some of its citizens for attempting to worship outside the four officially-approved religious groups.

Hanford also made critical reference to Iran, which has been listed as a country of special concern every year since the reports began in 1999.

"The Iranian regime continued to harass and persecute non-Shia religious groups, most significantly among the Bahai's, but also Sufi Muslims, some Christian groups and members of the Jewish community also suffered. We are particularly concerned at the present time about the fate awaiting two Christians from Muslim backgrounds who were officially charged with apostasy last week by the public and revolutionary court in Sharaz," he said.

The report expressed concern about a long-running effort by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the OIC, to push through the United Nations and other bodies resolutions nominally opposing the defamation of Islam and other religions - but with the practical effect of curbing religious discourse and dissent.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cited the OIC effort in comments opening the press roll-out of the report. "We welcome the opportunity to collaborate on new initiatives that both respect human rights and foster a climate of religious tolerance. But we are concerned about efforts to promote a so-called defamation of religious concept which has been the focus of numerous resolutions passed at the United Nations. Instead of protecting religious practice and promoting tolerance, this concept seeks to limit freedom of speech, and that can undermine the standards of international religious freedom."

Though not technically covered in the latest report, Ambassador Hanford expressed concern about recent lethal attacks on Christians by Hindu crowds in India's eastern Orissa state. He said Indian authorities need to act against the violence to preserve the country's long tradition of religious tolerance.