WASHINGTON -- The United States has removed Uzbekistan from a list of countries with the worst religious tolerance for the first time in more than a decade as its new president courts Western nations.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 21 highlighted the progress made by the Central Asian nation as he delivered the annual U.S. report on international religious freedom.
“In Uzbekistan, much work still remains to be done, but for the first time in 13 years it is no longer designated as a country of particular concern,” Pompeo said at a conference in Washington.
"We look forward to seeing legal reforms to registration requirements so more groups may worship freely and so children may pray in mosques with their parents.”
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has been trying to end the isolation his country endured under his authoritarian predecessor since he came to power three years ago.
Mirziyoev replaced Islam Karimov, who ruled the Central Asian nation with an iron fist from its independence in 1991 until his death in 2016.
Uzbekistan has freed more than 1,500 religious prisoners and is permitting 16,000 people who were blacklisted for their religious affiliations to once again travel, Pompeo said during the presentation.
That enabled the United States to drop Uzbekistan from a short list of nations -- which includes Iran, Saudi Arabia, as well as Central Asian nations Turkmenistan and Tajikistan -- that tolerate severe religious repression.
The annual report highlighted other steps Uzbekistan took last year to improve religious freedom, including approving a plan to implement all 12 recommendations made by a UN envoy.
The country also registered a church in 2018 for the first time in eight years and curtailed police harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The religious group noted harassment against its members declined more than 50 percent to 114 cases, the State Department report said.
Uzbekistan's government announced in December it would stop police raids on religious groups and organizations such as Jehovah's Witnesses, but at least one occurred after that proclamation, the report said.
Despite the progress, officials in the country still attempt to hinder religious freedom, the report said.
The government last year banned a summer camp for Catholic youth and monitored masses, while the Education Ministry passed new dress codes prohibiting children from wearing hijabs, skullcaps, and crosses in school.
Pompeo used his short speech to highlight the growing threat Jehovah’s Witnesses are facing across the border in Russia, where they have been “absurdly and abhorrently branded as terrorists,” he said.
Russia reportedly detained at least 47 Jehovah’s Witnesses and put 72 under investigation, the State Department report said.
Washington added Pakistan to the list of worst offenders after courts in the Muslim nation continued to enforce blasphemy laws.
Pompeo called on Pakistan to release more than 40 people facing life sentences or the death penalty for the offense and to appoint an envoy to address problems of religious tolerance.
Pakistan last year freed Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy. The decision sparked days of protests by angry citizens seeking to uphold the severe blasphemy laws. Bibi relocated to Canada last month.
Pompeo blasted Iran for its lack of religious tolerance, saying the country’s crackdown on Baha’is and Christians “continues to shock the conscience.”