The State Department's annual report on religious freedom was issued Thursday and it includes strong criticism of a number of Asian and Middle Eastern countries, including regional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The report is mandated by Congress and could lead to U.S. sanctions against serious violators.

The massive report says there are problems in the respect for the freedom of worship in virtually every part of the world, but says they are most acute in countries under authoritarian rule, among them North Korea, Burma, China, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba.

China was cited for trying to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations. The report said unregistered religious groups experienced varying degrees of official harassment, especially those determined by authorities to be cults, such as the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

At a briefing for reporters, the State Department's Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, John Hanford, said Vietnam continued to put significant restrictions on unrecognized religious groups, though there has been some progress in neighboring Laos.

He said the world's worst repression of religious believers is probably in North Korea, though he said the Pyongyang government is "ruthlessly efficient" in barring access to outside observers.

"We have so many reports of the problems there, including the execution of members of underground Christian churches, the torture and imprisonment of others, the fact that religious believers often experience the harshest behavior in prison," he said. "And we have people that have been able to get out of these situations and bring us these reports. And so we have received so many reports that we have felt it necessary to speak very strongly. And of course North Korea is one of our 'Countries of Particular Concern,' one of our severe violators."

Under the act of Congress which mandates the annual report, states identified as "Countries of Particular Concern" could face U.S. sanctions.

The most recent list of countries of concern, issued last March, includes China, Iran, Iraq, Burma, North Korea and Sudan. A new listing is expected soon, based on the findings of Thursday's report.

The report says flatly that freedom of religion "does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, where it says the government continues to enforce a strictly conservative version of Sunni Islam while suppressing other forms of Islam and non-Muslim religions.

Ambassador Hanford says Saudi Arabia has been on the verge of making the list of severe offenders of religious freedom, though he said U.S. officials are examining some recent conciliatory steps by Saudi authorities.

"Saudi Arabia has been very close to the threshold. In terms of restrictions of religious freedom there are few countries that are more restrictive in terms of their laws," he said. "There are other countries that are much harsher in terms of the ways that they manifest their laws, in terms of arresting and torture and murdering people. The government of Saudi Arabia has begun to implement some measures to address this problem, and we will be in the process of trying to assess how far those are along before we make that final decision."

The report says there are many examples of government-supported Saudi clerics using violently anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language in sermons, though authorities have said they have replaced more than 2,000 Imams for extremist preaching.

The document lists Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan among countries in which there is state hostility toward minority or non-approved religions. Others, including Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Israel and Eritrea, are cited for having discriminatory legislation or policies affecting certain religions.

It also notes with concern a "disturbing increase" in anti-Semitism in several European countries.