PRAGUE, September 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For the seventh year in a row, the U.S. State Department's annual report on religious freedom around the world, designates Iran a "country of particular concern" for imprisonment and harassment of people based on their religious beliefs.
John Hanford, the State Department's ambassador at large for religious freedom, said at the launch of the report, on September 15, that the purpose of the report is to "spur debate in other countries, hold governments accountable to their international commitments, speak out on behalf of the persecuted, and in the end, provide a sense of how well we are living up to our own ideals."
The report says that the eight "countries of particular concern" -- countries that in Washington's view are the worst violators of religious freedom -- are Myanmar, China, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.
Considered slightly better are 12 other countries where religious freedoms are far from secure. They are Afghanistan, Brunei, Cuba, Egypt, India, Israel and the occupied territories, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is faulted for "outrageous" crackdowns on Muslims, which Hanford says included a further tightening of a religious law and increased harassment of worshipers.
"Such abuses are particularly unfortunately where, as in Uzbekistan, they undermine a long-standing societal tradition of religious harmony," Hanford said. "Uzbekistan also provides an example of how governments often choose to use repressive registration laws as a means of restricting non-approved religions or simply to outlaw certain faiths entirely."
While the situation in neighboring Turkmenistan is also seen as grave, Hanford did note a modicum of progress. He said that "where previously only two religious groups were allowed legal status, we've now seen nine new religions and denominations allowed to register, an opening upon which we hope that government will continue to build."
Attitudes in Russia toward Jews and Muslim ethnic groups have become more negative in the past year, the State Department says. But Moscow is also praised for reacting quickly to an attack on a Moscow synagogue this January.
In Afghanistan, the report says decades of war and years of Taliban rule have contributed to a conservative culture of intolerance.
Nonetheless, Hanford says the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is "seeking to uphold constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, despite a long-standing culture of intolerance."
The State Department's annual review of religious freedom around the world is required by the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act. In all, the survey covers 197 countries and territories. Countries in the lowest ranking may be hit with U.S. sanctions if they do not improve.
The Iranian authorities on September 16 dismissed the report as "political" and "lacking legal proof."
In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini also said the report "pursues a U.S. foreign policy agenda and is of no value."