A US panel criticized Western European countries Tuesday for "aggressive secularism" as it released a report on religious freedom that took aim at laws banning full-face veils in public.

For the first time, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom -- whose members are appointed by the government -- included a chapter on the region in its annual review of tolerance of other faiths around the world.

Because Western Europe generally has a very good record, "it's easy to overlook the fact that there are some questions and problematic issues emerging there" related to religious dress and customs, commission chair Katrina Lantos Swett told reporters.

"In some countries a very aggressive secularism is putting people of religious faith in uncomfortable and difficult positions."

The report focused in particular on restrictions in Western Europe on religious attire and symbols, ritual slaughter, circumcision, and the building of mosques and minarets.

"These, along with limits on freedom of conscience and hate speech laws, are creating a growing atmosphere of intimidation against certain forms of religious activity in Western Europe," the report said.

"These restrictions also seriously limit social integration and educational and employment opportunities for the individuals affected."

The report addressed laws in France and Belgium that ban the wearing of full-face veils in public, noting that Muslim women who do so can now be stopped, questioned and fined by authorities.

"This raises discrimination concerns," the report said.

The review also referred to measures against religious groups characterized as "cults" and "sects," saying France has the most extensive restrictions but also mentioning Germany, Austria and Belgium.

"One of the problems with these sorts of laws, that are singling out a particular minority religious group, is that they send a signal that some people may take justified discrimination against members of that group," Elizabeth Cassidy, the commission's deputy director, told AFP.

In other chapters, the panel urged Washington to step up pressure on Pakistan over religious freedom, warning that risks to its minorities have reached a crisis level.

It also raised concerns about what it called a worsening situation in China, as well as problems in Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and other nations.