The decision removing Vietnam from the U.S. list of "countries of particular concern" with regard to religious freedom came on the eve of President Bush's departure on an Asian trip that includes a Vietnam visit.
But the State Department's Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford told reporters the decision had been made weeks ago, and the announcement was delayed until Monday only because of bureaucratic requirements related to adding Uzbekistan to the list.
At a news conference Hanford paid tribute to what he said was wide-ranging action by the Hanoi government to respond to U.S. concerns raised when Vietnam was put on the list of major violators in 2004:
"When I first traveled to Vietnam there were dozens of individuals imprisoned for their religious beliefs. Today, all of those people have been released. Prisoners included Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants and Wahow, some of whom had been in jail for many years."
Hanford said while there are still some problem issues with Vietnam, it has ceased and even outlawed some of the most egregious practices cited in 2004, including forcing thousands of Protestants in the central highlands region to renounce their faith.
He said Vietnam has reopened hundreds of Protestant churches it once shuttered and has, among other things, allowed hundreds of new Protestant and Roman Catholic clergymen to be ordained.
Hanford drew a sharp distinction between the record of Vietnam and that of Uzbekistan, which he said has become a country of particular concern because of harsh repression of some Muslim groups wrongly seen as being linked to political extremism:
"Muslims have long borne the brunt of the government of Uzbekistan's harsh repression. The government continues to target observant Muslims for arrest, often considering conservative Islamic practice to be evidence of extremism and terrorism."
Hanford said the United States recognizes Uzbekistan faces a legitimate security threat from some groups that have used religion as an excuse for violence, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization.
But he said U.S. officials take issue with what he said was the Uzbek government's use of religious observance to "profile" Muslim believers as extremists, without offering material evidence that they planned or were involved in acts of violence.
As he did when the State Department's annual religious freedom report was issued in September, Hanford credited Saudi Arabia with making some positive commitments to the United States about easing religious curbs.
Those, he said, include pledges to end religious incitement and rid school textbooks of negative references to Christians, Jews and followers of Muslim groups outside the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam.
He said U.S. officials are encouraged by the promises and have seen some improvement already but not enough yet to warrant removing Saudi Arabia from the list of violators.
Similarly Hanford said that Chinese officials have, in response to U.S. concerns, announced the easing of curbs on so-called "home churches" and religious education for children.
However, he said the policies are inconsistently implemented, with arrests of some activists continuing, and that improvements in religious freedom in China cannot be described as systemic.