Manish Swarup, Associated Press
A Tibetan exile monk holds his head as he sits among other monks during a daylong hunger strike in New Delhi, India, to express solidarity with the plight of the people in Tibet Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011.

Religious minorities throughout the world continue to suffer severe restrictions of their rights to religious liberty, according to a new U.S. State Department report, which also gave guarded praise to countries where conditions have slightly improved.

News accounts of Monday's release of the International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 highlighted nations where rulers were overthrown in the so-called Arab Spring, giving rise to hopes of democratic rule and religious freedom.

“Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that the pressure is rising,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Washington. “Even some countries that are making progress on expanding political freedom are frozen in place when it comes to religious freedom. So when it comes to this human right, this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies, the world is sliding backwards.”

Reuters reported that Clinton got a first-hand taste of the bitterness of many Egyptian Christians at this year's election of Islamist Mohammed Mursi as president of the country, with protests by angry Coptic Christians, among others, outside her Cairo hotel. Unknown protesters also pelted her motorcade with tomatoes, shoes and water bottles in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.

"I am concerned that respect for religious freedom is ... quite tenuous" in Egypt, Clinton said in response to a question after she gave a speech at a Washington think tank, saying sectarian violence had increased since Mubarak's downfall but the authorities had been inconsistent in prosecuting it.

"That then sends a message to the minority community in particular, but to the larger community, that there's not going to be any consequences," she said.

The annual State Department report said there had been "a marked deterioration during 2011 in the government's respect for and protection of religious freedom" in China, and that there was "severe" repression of religious freedom in Tibetan areas and the far western region of Xinjiang, home to a significant number of Muslims.

Tibetan areas of China have seen a surge in self-immolations since 2011, and the report said that tightened restrictions on Buddhist worship contributed to at least 12 of them last year.

The Associated Press reported the Chinese response came in a commentary published by the official Xinhua News Agency, which said the State Department report was "continuing a notorious practice of blatantly interfering in the internal affairs of other countries."

"The annual report, largely based on unconfirmed media reports and groundless allegations from outlawed groups and organizations with ulterior motives, is nothing but a political tool used by the U.S. government to exert pressure on other countries, mostly deemed as its rivals," it said.

Xinhua said the self-immolations were politically motivated, and part of a "scheme" by supporters of the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, whom China accuses of trying to separate Tibet from China.

Also receiving harsh criticism in the report was North Korea, where "religious freedom does not exist in any form."

The report stated that the accounts by refugees, defectors, missionaries, and nongovernmental organizations indicated that religious persons who engaged in proselytizing in the country and those who were in contact with foreigners or missionaries were arrested and subjected to harsh penalties, including possible executions of underground Christian church members in prior years.

Religious freedom in Iran deteriorated further from an already egregious situation, the State Department said, citing that Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani remained jailed and faced possible execution for practicing his faith, and sentences of the seven Baha’i leaders were re-extended to the original 20 years after having been reduced to 10 years in 2010.

McClatchey Newspapers noted that even some allies came under the critical eye of the State Department. Europe was chided for failing to keep pace with its growing ethnic and religious diversity, with the report saying the demographic change is sometimes accompanied by “growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered ‘the other.’ ”

The article said Belgium and France passed laws restricting dress that “adversely affected Muslims,” while Hungary introduced changes making it so difficult to register religious organizations that the number of recognized religious groups plummeted from more than 300 to fewer than 32.

New accounts mentioned Libya, Myanmar, Cuba and Russia as bright spots where conditions have improved but still have a long way to go to realize the free practice of one's faith. The report also noted improvements in Turkey and Ukraine.

“Even as this report documents abuses of religious freedom, the events of 2011 show that change is possible,” the report's conclusion states, “and suggests that countries whose constitution, laws, policies, and practices protect religious freedom and human rights will be the most vibrant and stable.”

Religion News Service reported that Katrina Lantos Swett, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, called the State Department report “commendable” but said the department still must convince policymakers that religious freedom should be a “moral imperative."

“The other challenge is convincing foreign governments to make needed improvements,” she said.

ADDED information on North Korea and Iran from the State Department report