The U.S. State Department said Tuesday a number of countries around the world have made progress over the last year on freedom of religion. The department's annual report on the issue, mandated by Congress, again listed eight nations as countries of particular concern for curbs on religious practice. 

The State Department says there have been at least marginal gains in the protection of religious freedom world-wide over the past year, though it has again listed eight countries as serious violators of religious rights and says it might soon add one or two more nations to that list.

The report issued Tuesday was the seventh annual assessment of religious freedom world-wide issued by the State Department under a 1998 act of Congress.

The list of countries of particular concern, a designation that could mean U.S. sanctions, was the same as in 2004 and included Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

However, the United States and Vietnam reached an agreement earlier this year under which the Hanoi government has pledged to take a series of steps to improve its record on the issue.

At a news conference releasing the new report, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Vietnam may be dropped from the list next time:

"We're committed to seeking improvements in each of these countries, improvements like those we've actually seen in Vietnam, which been further advanced by agreements on religious freedom that our governments signed just this last May," she says. "If Vietnam's record of improvement continues, it would enable us to eventually remove Vietnam from the list of countries of particular concern."

Ms. Rice postponed imposing penalties on key Gulf ally Saudi Arabia in September to give authorities there another 180 days to show progress on the treatment of religious minorities.

As it did last year, the 2005 report said flatly that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia and that basic religious rights are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam.

However John Hanford, the State Department's special ambassador on religious freedom, did credit Saudi authorities with positive steps including the firing of some clergymen who preached intolerance.

He also said that despite laws forbidding other faiths, Saudi authorities have in effect been looking the other way and tolerated some non-sanctioned religious activity:

"In the case of Saudi Arabia, on the law books, on the books, it really doesn't exist. Virtually nothing is tolerated," Mr. Hanford says. "In practice, we are pleased that they allow on any given week, hundreds of thousands of people privately to meet and to worship. There are important exceptions to this, and we hope that those exceptions will disappear."

Mr. Hanford said Secretary of State Rice can be expected to raise the religious-freedom issue when she visits Saudi Arabia late this week for the first annual U.S. Saudi strategic dialogue.

The ambassador said varying degrees of progress on religious freedom have been made in a number of countries over the past year including Turkmenistan, Qatar and India.

He said while serious religious-freedom problems remain in Pakistan, the government there has continued to make public calls for religious tolerance and has taken some positive tangible steps including moves to revise blasphemy laws and school curriculums.

Mr. Hanford said that among the countries of particular concern, Burma, Iran, North Korea, and Eritrea, which was hit with U.S. trade sanctions in September, have not been willing to engage the United States in any meaningful way on religious issues.

He said the same can be said for other countries where serious problems have been noted and said one or two could be added to the list soon.

He did not name them, but said later in the press appearance that Uzbekistan's crackdown on Muslim factions perceived as subversive is problematic:

"In thousands of cases, authorities have asserted membership in banned political organizations that encourage terrorism based solely on outward expression by Muslims of their devout beliefs," Mr. Hanford says. "The government has also made false assertions of membership in extremist organizations as a pretext for repressing the innocent expression of religious belief."

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressionally funded bipartisan group, has asked that Uzbekistan be included among the list of serious violators because of what it says is its deteriorating record.

Human rights groups say the Bush administration has a clear justification for adding Uzbekistan after the violent crackdown on protesters in the Uzbek city of Andijan last May.

The Uzbek government denies targeting Muslims for their faith but says extremists want to set up Islamic rule in the Central Asian state.