The US on Tuesday named China, North Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar as serious violators of religious freedom in the annual State Department report to the US Congress.
China and its neighbors joined Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Eritrea as nations designated "countries of particular concern," the State Department said.
"These are countries where governments have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom over the past year," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters as she unveiled the report, covering 197 countries.
Still, she held up Vietnam, which remained on the worst violators list, as an example of a country that had made progress this year, including signing a pact with Washington over how the Southeast Asian state would improve religious rights.
"If Vietnam's record of improvement continues, it would enable us to eventually remove Vietnam from our list of countries of particular concern," Rice said.
John Hanford, the US envoy for international religious freedom, said Hanoi had made some "very significant efforts to improve religious freedom," including passing new laws, releasing 14 prisoners and opening some closed churches.
The report placed China, North Korea and Myanmar on a list of authoritarian states which "regard some or all religious groups as enemies of the state because of their religious beliefs or their independence from central authority."
In China, where those wanting to worship are restricted to state-sanctioned groups, "religious leaders and adherents, including those in official churches, were detained, arrested or sentenced to prison or re-education-through-labor camps," the report said.
China had no immediate comment yesterday on the criticism, though it regularly says its Constitution guarantees religious freedom and that the US should not interfere in its affairs.
The report said Beijing seeks to control all religious activity, especially when it could be linked to political goals such as in the independence-minded regions of Tibet, which is mostly Buddhist, and Xinjiang, which is largely Muslim.
China requires Roman Catholics and Protestants to worship in state-controlled churches, though enforcement varies widely, the report said. It said officials in some areas work with both official and independent religious groups to accomplish social goals.
Threats and extortion
But ``in some areas, security authorities used threats, demolition of unregistered property, extortion, interrogation, detention, and at times beatings and torture to harass leaders of unauthorized groups and their followers,'' it said.
Despite the controls, religious activity is on the rise in China, it said.
China singles out Falun Gong for extra scrutiny, and "there have been credible reports of deaths due to torture and abuse," the report said.
China bans Falun Gong as an "evil cult." Imprisoned followers who refuse to recant their beliefs are sometimes treated harshly, the report said.
"While the Falun Gong are not officially a religion, more a spiritual movement, the suffering that they've endured is unspeakable," Hanford said.
Hanford said Beijing had, however, demonstrated a willingness to engage with Washington to improve religious freedom.
"My hope is that we will be able to turn a corner with China," he said, noting that US President George W. Bush would likely re-inforce that message in a visit to China next week.