Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice extended the designation of US ally Saudi Arabia as a "country of particular concern" as well as that of China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Vietnam, Eritrea and Sudan.
 
"These are countries where governments have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom over the past year," Rice told a news conference on Tuesday.

"We are committed to seeking improvements in each of these countries," she said. Countries face US government sanctions 180 days after being included in the blacklist.

The announcement was made along with the separate release of the State Department's seventh annual report on international religious freedom, which took several US foes and friends to task for a lack of progress.

Laws modified

"In some countries we find that governments have modified laws and policies, improved enforcement or taken other concrete steps to increase and demonstrate respect for religious freedom," Rice said.

"In far too many countries, however, governments still fail to safeguard religious freedom. Across the globe, people are still persecuted or killed for practising their religion, or even for just being believers."

Rice: Some states have modified
policies to improve the situation

The report branded Myanmar, China, North Korea and Cuba as countries using "totalitarian or authoritarian actions to control religious belief or practice" but removed Vietnam from the list, citing "significant" progress.

Vietnam joined a list of seven countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Eritrea and Laos that exhibited "state hostility towards minority or nonapproved religions", according to the State Department.

The State Department annually blacklists countries for alleged religious freedom violations based on recommendations from a commission jointly appointed by President George Bush and Congress.

Rice's predecessor Colin Powell added Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam to the blacklist in September 2004. But there has been no word on whether they faced US action.

Countries exempted

The recommending panel, called the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in May that it had sought to designate Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as "countries of particular concern".

The commission said at the time it found the three governments had "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom". But the three were absent from the list released on Tuesday, US officials said.

The State Department report does list Pakistan as one of the countries that has "discriminatory legislation or policies prejudicial to certain religions, imposing elements of Islamic law on Muslims and religious minorities".
 
It added: "The government took steps to improve the treatment of religious minorities, but there were instances in which authorities failed to intervene in cases of societal violence directed at minority religious groups."

Former Soviet bloc

In Uzbekistan, the report noted "a slight decline in the already poor status of religious freedom".

Uzbekistan has jailed members
of Muslim groups

Authorities arrested numerous people as members of the errant Muslim groups and sentenced them to long prison terms.

A major confrontation with protesters in the eastern Uzbekistan city Andijan, which killed hundreds, was associated with the crackdown.

Turkmenistan was cited among the countries that made "significant improvements" in the promotion of religious freedom.

On Saudi Arabia, the State Department did not budge from its determination that "freedom of religion does not exist" and basic religious rights are denied to all but those who follow the state-sanctioned Sunni faith.

Israel

Washington's other key Middle East ally, Israel, also came in for criticism in the report despite Israel's pledge to provide full social and political equality for all.

"Some non-Jews, primarily Arab Muslims and Christians, continued to experience discrimination in the areas of education, housing and employment," the department said.

It also chided European allies Belgium, France and Germany, listing them among Western governments that "continued to use restrictive legislation and practices to brand minority religions as dangerous 'cults' or 'sects'".

Israel is mentioned for its
discrimination against non-Jews

The report said Christians, Muslims and followers of other religions in China are being harassed, arrested and worse for refusing to register with the government.

Some, such as practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual regimen, are accused as cultists, and those who will not recant their beliefs are imprisoned or sent to labour camps, the department said.

"There were credible reports of deaths due to torture and abuse" of Falun Gong practitioners, the department said.   "Underground Christian groups, Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists and members of groups the government considered 'cults' were subjected to increased government scrutiny."

Azerbaijan

In Muslim Azerbaijan, the report cited abuses of the constitutional right to freedom of religion. The government of the former Soviet republic enforces the "law on religious freedom", which prohibits foreigners from proselytising.

The Indian government at times failed to stop attacks by Hindu mobs on members of religious minorities, partly because of legal constraints built into the country's federal structure that require central government action.

"Inter-religious tensions between Muslims and Hindus and also between Hindus and Christians continued," the report said.

"In some regions, local officials selectively enforced laws to the detriment of religious minorities."