TASHKENT (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on Saturday that efforts to crack down on religious freedom might backfire.
She said this could lead to increased sympathy for radical views in Central Asia, a region the United States sees as key to the future stability of Afghanistan.
Clinton met Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon and Uzbek President Islam Karimov to thank the two Central Asian states for their cooperation in the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan.
She stressed to both that freedom of religious expression was tied to the region's future security, U.S. officials said.
"I disagree with restrictions on religious freedom and shared those concerns," Clinton told a news conference after meeting Rakhmon in Dushanbe on the last full day of her latest overseas trip.
She said efforts to regulate religion "could push legitimate religious expression underground, and that could build up a lot of unrest and discontent."
Clinton's visit to the two former Soviet republics came after a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan that was focused on U.S. efforts to find a political solution to the decade-long Afghan conflict.
She also promoted greater regional economic integration under a plan U.S. officials have dubbed "the New Silk Road."
Karimov and Rakhmon have moved to limit religious freedom in their countries which remain under authoritarian rule two decades after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Tajikistan, a mainly Muslim country of 7.5 million people, introduced laws in August to ban youths from praying in mosques, churches and other religious sites, a move that was criticized by religious leaders.
Rakhmon, in power since 1992, has said tough measures are needed to stop the spread of religious fundamentalism in an impoverished country that shares a porous 1,340-km (840-mile) border with Afghanistan.
"You have to look at the consequences," Clinton said in Tajikistan.
"We would hope there would be a rethinking of any restrictions going forward, because we think it will increase sympathy for extremist views which would in turn threaten the stability and security of the country."
Rakhmon's Moscow-backed secular government clashed with the Islamist opposition during a 1992-97 civil war, in which tens of thousands were killed.
The president has ignored previous requests from the West to respect freedom of conscience. He has ordered students home from religious schools abroad and clamped down on a growing trend for Islamic dress.
U.S. officials said Clinton also raised the issue with Uzbekistan's Karimov -- widely seen as one of the most repressive leaders in the region -- as one of a number of human rights concerns that also include press freedom, human trafficking and political reforms.
Karimov, who has said he intends to make reforms, repeated these pledges to Clinton, one U.S. official said.
"He said that he wants to leave a legacy for both his kids and his grandchildren," the official said. "The secretary welcomed that, and said that would help to build a long-term foundation for Uzbekistan but also for our cooperation."
U.S. officials said Clinton's Central Asian trip, her second to the region in less than 12 months, was aimed in a large part at thanking Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for their assistance with the Afghan conflict.
They said she also wanted to broaden a relationship giving the United States a important "back door" into Afghanistan and an alternative supply route that could prove vital if U.S. ties with its main ally in the region, Pakistan, unravel.
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are part of what Washington calls the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a supply line for U.S.-led forces fighting the Taliban that also stretches through Russia, Latvia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
The NDN is increasingly important as U.S. ties with Pakistan come under strain over Washington's charges that elements of the Pakistani government have links to Islamist militants blamed for attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The United States is aiming to reduce the proportion of its surface cargo that it brings through Pakistan to only a quarter by increasing its supplies through the northern route; in July it was still well over half.
Writing by Andrew Quinn and Robin Paxton; Editing by Michael Roddy