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In an undated photo provided by Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry, police raid the home of an alleged religious-extremism suspect.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department says religious freedom in Uzbekistan continues to improve, while Iran and China remain among the worst offending countries in the world.

"In many places of the world, individuals have become more familiar with religious oppression than religious freedom," Sam Brownback, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said on June 10 after the release of an annual report on religious freedom.

Uzbekistan was removed from the "worst of the worst" list of offenders of religious freedom last year and continues to take positive steps despite continued abuses.

“We documented no police raids of unregistered religious-group meetings during 2019, compared with 114 such raids in 2018, and 240 the year before that. These are great strides, real progress,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a news conference in Washington.

However, Tashkent remains on a special watch list, meaning there are still "severe" violations of religious freedom in the Central Asian country.

Pompeo said that while there was improvement in some countries, there remained “great darkness over parts of the world where people of faith are persecuted or denied the right to worship.”

In Iran, the country’s Shi’ite theocratic leaders continued to repress religious freedom and discriminate against minorities as part of an already bleak human rights record.

The government continued to execute individuals for “enmity against God” and otherwise persecute small religious minorities such as the Baha’is, Christian converts, and Sunnis, according to the 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Elsewhere in the word, Pompeo accused China of continuing a “decades-long war on faith” to strengthen the hold of the Communist Party over all aspects of life.

China has rounded up more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims and other groups into concentration camps in the western Xinjiang Province, where the report said forced disappearances were accompanied by political indoctrination, torture, sexual abuse, and forced labor.

In Russia, the report said the government continued to enforce a ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists,” raiding homes, detaining believers, and throwing some into prison.

Similar treatment was meted out against the banned Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, with more than 200 people imprisoned for their religious beliefs.

Activists in front of the EU office in Nur-Sultan on June 10.

NUR-SULTAN -- Police in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, have detained 12 activists who were picketing the European Union's office in the city.

The activists on June 10 were calling on EU officials to pressure Kazakh authorities to release three activists, Ruslan Nurqanov, Aibek Sabitov, and Darkhan Omirbaev, who were sentenced to jail terms of between 10 and 15 days last week on the eve of unsanctioned protests in Nur-Sultan. They were found guilty of calling for "illegal rallies."

During the demonstration, the protesters held portraits of the three jailed activists, as well as posters saying "European Union, Be With The Kazakh People!" and "#BlackLivesMatter #Kazakhstan."

One of the posters had a picture of a donkey with the face of the Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.

"We want police reforms! We want a new law on public protests! We are against the police state!" the protesters chanted before dozens of police forced them into vehicles and took them away.

Police in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s second-largest city, Almaty, and at least three other cities detained more than 100 people on June 6 during anti-government protests. Some of them were later sentenced to several days in jail for taking part in the unsanctioned protests.

In Almaty, on June 10, a noted civil rights activist, Asya Tulesova, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for taking part in the June 6 protest.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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