WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States took Iran to task on Friday for its "harsh and oppressive treatment" of religious minorities as the two nations continued their standoff over Tehran's suspected nuclear arms program.
Iran, which says its nuclear program is aimed at power generation, is a frequent target of criticism from the United States, which has long branded Tehran as a "state sponsor of terrorism" and accused it of persistent human rights abuses.
In its annual "Report on International Religious Freedom" around the world, the State Department said it found a further deterioration in what it called "the extremely poor status of respect for religious freedom" in Iran.
The assessment cited reports of imprisonment, harassment, intimidation and discrimination based on religious beliefs in Iran, even among Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians -- the only legally recognized religious minorities.
"The U.S. government has expressed strongly its objections to the government's harsh and oppressive treatment of religious minorities," the report said, adding that Iran "created a threatening atmosphere" for nearly all such minorities.
The report assesses events in the year ended on June 30.
As it released the report, the State Department left unchanged its list of nations that "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom," citing China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam.
PROBLEMS IN UZBEKISTAN
The official who oversees the report said an updated list of "countries of particular concern" would come out in a few weeks. He declined to say who may be added or dropped but cited progress in Saudi Arabia and deterioration in Uzbekistan.
"The most serious problem over the last few years in Uzbekistan has been an inappropriate arrest of some Muslims who are simply observant, maybe praying five times a day, perhaps they have a beard, and just on the basis of these outward signs are suspected of having terrorist ties," said John Hanford, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
"In some cases, these people have been horribly treated," he told reporters.
Hanford cited progress in Saudi Arabia, including its promises to rein in religious police, to permit private worship of religions other than Islam and to strip textbooks of denigrating comments about Jews, Christians and others.
However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressionally funded, bipartisan panel, rebuked the State Department for having softened its criticism of Saudi Arabia and for dropping its long-standing assessment that "freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia.
"It definitely sends a message by taking that out that there has been improvement," said Dwight Bashir, who tracks Saudi Arabia at the panel. "We still believe strongly that religious freedom does not exist -- period."
As she presented the report, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to the Sept. 11 attacks and said religious freedom was integral to U.S. efforts to fight terrorism.
"The entire world is threatened by the extremist ideologies of hate and bigotry and religious intolerance," she said. "In today's world, our goal of fostering religious freedom and tolerance beyond our borders is an essential component even of national security."
Among the eight countries "of particular concern," the State Department found some improvement in Sudan as well as in Vietnam, where it said Protestants in the north said they were allowed to worship "without significant harassment."
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