WASHINGTON (AFP) - A US religious freedom watchdog asked the State Department to include Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkmenistan in its global blacklist of religious freedom violators, and maintained Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, on a watchlist.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
In its recommendation to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom also wanted Myanmar, China and North Korea to be kept in the department's "country of particular concern" blacklist together with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Eritrea and Uzbekistan.

The independent commission, set up by US law to monitor religious freedom across the globe, also maintained Afghanistan and Bangladesh in its watchlist together with Belarus, Cuba, Egypt and Nigeria.

The 10-member panel was divided whether to downgrade predominantly-Muslim Iraq, where widespread persecution of Christians has been reported, to the blacklist from the watchlist, saying it needed more time to make the decision.

The commission makes an annual recommendation to the State Department ahead of its compilation of its annual report on international religious freedom.

The panel wanted Vietnam to be reincluded in the department's blacklist, saying the government continued to imprison and detain dozens of individuals advocating for religious freedom reforms in the communist-led state.

Vietnam was removed from the list in November 2006 on the eve of a visit by US President George W. Bush to the former battlefield enemy nation.

The State Department admitted Friday that there were still "a number of issues" on religious freedom in Vietnam.

But "the actions that the Vietnamese government has taken to address some of our concerns makes them a country that does not merit being included on the CPC or the countries of particular concern list," said Tom Casey, a department spokesman.

Commission member Leonard Leo said the panel's view differed from that of the department.

"We continue to find that lifting the CPC designation for Vietnam was premature," he told a news conference.

Ethnic minority Buddhists and Protestants in Vietnam "are often harassed, beaten, detained, arrested and discriminated against and they continue to face some efforts to coerce renunciation of faith," the report said.

Commission members traveled to Vietnam last fall and were able to meet individuals detained under house arrest or in prison, such as Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do, and Catholic priests Phan Van Loi, Nguyen Van Dai and Li Thi Cong Nhan.

In Pakistan, the commission said it did not see major improvements in religious freedom even though the country had gone through a democratic transition following landmark elections.

"Despite the dramatic events in Pakistan in the past year, the commission finds that all of the serious religious freedom concerns, including violence, on which it has previously reported, persist."

The panel said concerns over Indonesia remained, citing communal violence and the government's "inability or unwillingness to curb it" as well as what it called the forcible closures of places of worship of religious minorities.

It also referred to growing political power and influence of religious extremists "who harass and sometimes instigate violence" against moderate Muslim leaders and members of religious minorities.

"There are persistent fears that Indonesia's commitment to secular governance, ethnic and religious pluralism, and a culture of tolerance will be eroded by some who promote extremist interpretations of Islam," it said.

(by P. Parameswaran/ AFP, Maỷ, 2008)