A U.S. advisory panel is asking the State Department to expand its list of governments that it says routinely violate people's religious freedom. As VOA's Kent Klein reports from Washington, the group also wants the U.S. to keep an eye on religious repression in Iraq.

The U.S. government's Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF) has issued its 2008 report on the countries it alleges are the worst violators of the right to worship freely.

The panel agrees with the State Department that Burma, China and Sudan are among the worst offenders, along with North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. But Commission chairman Michael Cromartie says his group has urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to add Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to the list.

"The commission is convinced that the governments in these countries either have not halted repression or violence amounting to severe violations of freedom of religion, or at least they failed to punish those responsible for perpetuating such acts," he said.

The panel traveled to Vietnam recently and met with government officials, as well as imprisoned religious leaders. They told commission member Leonard Leo that Vietnam's ethnic minority Buddhists and Protestants are often harassed, beaten, detained and arrested.

"It is the commission's contention that there are scores of religious prisoners of concern in Vietnam, detained and imprisoned, in part, for their attempts to exercise their religious freedom to advocate on behalf of it," he said.

The State Department responded that Vietnam has made significant improvements in its record on religious freedom in recent years, enough to avoid returning to the list.

A State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said Friday Vietnam has released prisoners, reopened churches and banned forced renunciations of faith, and that incidences of harassment and abuse are down significantly.

Saudi Arabia is already on the State Department's list, and after a visit to the kingdom last year, the commission says it should stay there. The report says the Saudi government has not kept its promise to tolerate religious expression other than its form of Sunni Islam, or to stop printing school books that incite hatred and violence.

The Commission on International Religious Freedom also released a "watch list" of countries it considers lesser violators - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

Michael Cromartie says the group is seriously concerned about the level of religious freedom in Iraq, where non-Muslims face widespread violence from Sunni insurgents and foreign extremists.

"In 2007, the commission placed Iraq on the watch list, citing escalating unchecked sectarian violence, mounting evidence of collusion between Shia militias and Iraqi government ministries, and the severe plight of the country's smallest religious minorities," he said.

Commission members plan to visit Iraq this month, and will issue more recommendations soon after.