WASHINGTON - The U.S. declared Tuesday that religious freedom is "under assault" across the globe.
"The state of religious freedom is dire," said Sam Brownback, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, as he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released the agency's annual report concluding that many countries throughout the world crack down on religious adherents and punish them harshly for their beliefs.
Even as the U.S. works toward a June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, the State Department report singled out the reclusive communist nation for abuses against believers.
WATCH: Religious freedom lacking
?"The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings and arrests," the report said. "An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions."
Brownback said, "What we know is we got a gulag system operating in North Korea, and it’s been a terrible situation for many, many years. You can go on satellite — open source satellite — and see some of these camps and their situation. You have people that have gotten out and written about the situation in North Korea. We know it is very difficult and desperate, and particularly for people of faith, and that’s why North Korea has remained a country of particular concern for us.”
Brownback told VOA it is his view that the purge against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is "religious cleansing."
"The official legal category is ethnic cleansing, but it is ethnic cleansing in the religious minority, the Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim," he said.
"I think it just keeps getting worse. But that's why people have to step up more aggressively as nations, and pushing back on this against what the military is doing in Burma and what's happening in that country."
Brownback also expressed concern about Nigeria, which he plans to visit soon. "I plan on going to Nigeria. It's a nation of 50 percent Muslim and 50 percent of Christian, and a lot of conflicts. It's the largest country in Africa, population-wise. And we can't afford, neither can the continent or the rest of the world, for Nigeria to come apart at the seams."
The report also condemned abuse of religious believers in China, Iran, Russia and other countries.
The State Department said Beijing "continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when the government perceived these as threatening" the state or the ruling communist party. The report estimated that "hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims have been forcibly sent to re-education centers, and extensive and invasive security and surveillance practices have been instituted."
Brownback said, "You know, that was a concept you thought was gone decades ago and (is) being experienced in growing amounts. The report cites a number of very, very troubling concerns and a decline in religious freedom” in China."
In Iran, the report said the government continues to deal harshly with religious minorities, including executing or imprisoning those convicted of waging "war on God."
The State Department said that in Russia, "Authorities continued to detain and fine members of minority religious groups and minority religious organizations for alleged extremism. In one case, there were reports that authorities tortured an individual in a pretrial detention facility. Authorities convicted and fined several individuals for 'public speech offensive to religious believers.'”
In releasing the report, Pompeo said, "Advancing liberty and religious freedom advances America’s interests. Where fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, press and peaceful assembly are under attack, we find conflict, instability and terrorism. On the other hand, governments and societies that champion these freedoms are more secure, stable and peaceful. So, for all of the reasons, protecting and promoting global respect for religious freedom is a priority for the Trump administration.”
Pompeo said the State Department is convening a ministerial meeting July 25-26 to promote religious freedom, inviting foreign diplomats from "like-minded governments, as well as representatives of international organizations, religious community, and civil society to reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right."
He said the gathering "will not be just a discussion group, it will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”
Brownback said, "The problems are great, but the opportunity for change is, too."
State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.