"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 said in Washington Tuesday.
"We are committed to seeking improvements in each of these countries."
The eight named as "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) are Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam.
Designation of religious freedom violators as CPCs takes place under 1998 legislation which provides for the U.S. government to take punitive steps against them.
Most of the countries on the list are targeted by pre-existing U.S. sanctions. Religious freedom sanctions have been taken against Eritrea and measures against Saudi Arabia was waived for six-months two months ago.
Vietnam signed an agreement with the U.S. last May committing itself to address religious freedom concerns, thus precluding sanctions.
Rice said that of the eight CPCs, Vietnam had worked on its record and could eventually be removed from the list if improvement continues.
The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body set up under the 1998 legislation, makes recommendations to government on religious freedom issues.
The Commission has recommended CPC status for all eight of the countries named Tuesday, as well as three others -- all Muslim states -- Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Communications director Anne Johnson Tuesday welcomed designation of the eight, but said the Commission was disappointed about the three omissions in the 2005 report.
In Uzbekistan's case, she said, the violence in Andijan last May should make it a "pretty clear-cut" case.
U.S.-Uzbekistan diplomatic ties have soured over the violence, which human rights groups say cost hundreds of lives. Tashkent has rejected calls for an international inquiry, but maintains that 187 people, mostly "terrorists," died in an attempted "Islamic uprising."
Addressing a press conference, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom John Hanford said although the department was not designating any new CPCs now, the law did allow it to add countries to the list at any stage of the year.
"Presently, we are in the late stages of our discussions with one or two potential 'Countries of Particular Concern' and we may have an announcement to make in the near future," he said, without naming them.
The 2005 report said that CPCs Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam, along with non-CPCs Uzbekistan and Laos, were hostile toward minority or non-approved religions.
North Korea did not permit religious freedom at all, China's "respect for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience remained poor," and Burma was accused of severe violations.
Other countries criticized for less serious infringements included Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Brunei, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey.
France, Germany and Belgium were cited for restrictive legislation and practices to brand minority religions as dangerous "cults" or "sects."
Apart from Vietnam, improvements were also reported in India, Turkmenistan, Georgia and the United Arab Emirates.
Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.