The U.S. State Department on Tuesday maintained China, Burma, and North Korea in an annual blacklist of top violators of religious freedom but did not include Vietnam in the list as demanded by rights groups.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton designated the three nations together with Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan in the "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC) list.
The eight countries have been "long-term, chronic, and egregious violators of religious freedom," the State Department said.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner indicated that the situation in Vietnam, which was in the in the CPC blacklist from 2004 to 2006, would continue to be monitored.
"In these and other places, we will continue to review and assess the state of religious freedom, and we are prepared to designate other countries as Countries of Particular Concern as the situation warrants," he told a media briefing at the State Department.
The independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressional watchdog, had asked President Barack Obama's administration to reinstate Vietnam on the blacklist, saying the communist government there severely restricts religious practice and "brutally" represses those who challenge its authority.
Commission head Leonard Leo said on Tuesday that it "is concerned that no new countries were added to the list,” referring to Vietnam as a "glaring" omission.
U.S. lawmaker Ed Royce also slammed the State Department for not blacklisting Vietnam
"The State Department’s failure to list Vietnam as a CPC is a grave mistake," he said.
"The fact remains that no religious group is immune from government coercion and harassment. Buddhists, Catholics, and Evangelicals alike face the heavy hand of Vietnamese government tyranny if they step outside its tight restrictions," said Royce, a Republican Congressman from California.
"When Vietnam was placed on the CPC list, we saw some positive changes. Unfortunately, when it was released in 2006, Vietnam ramped up its persecution," he said.
Posner said Vietnam's record is "mixed," acknowledging "significant problems."
"While the government has allowed hundreds of new places of worship to be built, significant problems remain, especially at the provincial and village levels," he said.
These include slow or no approval of registration for some religious groups, especially in the north and northwest highlands of Vietnam.
There were also reports of "harsh treatment" of detainees after the protest over the closing of a Catholic cemetery in Con Dau Parish in Da Nang amid a land dispute last year, he said.
The Vietnamese communist government had also in July re-imprisoned Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic human rights defender who was paroled 16 months earlier after suffering a series of strokes while in prison.
On China, Clinton said, "Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims, 'house church' Christians all suffer from government attempts to restrict their religious practice."
Beijing's overall level of respect for religious freedom declined in 2010 and has worsened this year, Posner said.
On the Chinese government's measures against house churches or unregistered churches, he cited the Shouwang Church in Beijing as an example.
"[B]eginning around Easter time, people were not allowed to gather, and a number of the leaders of that church were put in prison."
Washington also has concerns about the Uyghur community and Beijing's restrictions on Muslim religion in China's western Xinjiang region where recent violence has resulted in a security crackdown.
The resource-rich Xinjiang region is home to mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghurs who say that recent economic development has unfairly benefited China's majority Han who migrated to the region over the past decades.
Posner also addressed concerns about the Tibetan community, referring to Beijing's crackdown on the Kirti Monastery in southwestern Sichuan province's Ngaba prefecture, where 300 monks were taken from the monastery and detained.
"So there is a broader pattern of religious and other persecution that’s part of a broader human rights problem" in China, he said.
He also highlighted the case of outspoken Chinese rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has represented religious communities and has been "disappeared," and presumed held incommunicado since April 2010, in spite of an international campaign for his release.
In Burma, Posner said the new nominally civilian government continues to keep hundreds of monks in prison despite implementing a flurry of political reforms recently.
They are believed to be among more than 2,000 political prisoners languishing under harsh conditions in the country.
The government also refuses to recognize that the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, are Burmese citizens, he said.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.