By Andrew Quinn
DUSHANBE (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Tajikistan on Saturday that efforts to crack down on religious freedom might backfire and increase sympathy for radical views that could threaten stability in the Central Asian country.
Clinton, who met Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon on a trip to thank two Central Asian states for their cooperation in the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan, said freedom of religious expression was tied to the region's future security.
"I disagree with restrictions on religious freedom and shared those concerns," Clinton told a news conference after meeting Rakhmon.
She said efforts to regulate religion "could push legitimate religious expression underground, and that could build up a lot of unrest and discontent."
Following visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Clinton was on the first leg of a Central Asian tour. She is due to visit Uzbekistan and meet President Islam Karimov later on Saturday.
Both Karimov and Rakhmon have moved to limit religious freedom in their own countries, both of which remain under authoritarian rule two decades after they emerged from 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 in the former Soviet state.
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. "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'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 was also seeking 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.
Both 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.
"We've always said that we'd prefer to use the Pakistan routes because it's cheaper, it's shorter ... but still, it's a good thing to have," a senior U.S. official told reporters traveling with Clinton.
"With our relations with Pakistan, we always have to be prepared should they decide that they either want to restrict our access or even, in the worst case, close it off," the official said.
"We need to be prepared to move more through Central Asia if necessary."
The NDN route is sensitive in the region, particularly in Uzbekistan, where officials fear that too much publicity over their assistance to the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan could open them to attack from militants, the official said.
"They're worried about the potential blow-back to them of their support for us from the Taliban and from Pakistan-based militants," the official said, declining to discuss specifics of how the NDN might be expanded.
He did say, however, that the United States was not seeking to regain access to Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad military base.
The United States was evicted from the base in 2005 after sharp criticism of Karimov's government for shooting into crowds that took to the streets in the city of Andizhan. Witnesses say hundreds were killed when troops opened fire.
(Writing by Andrew Quinn and Robin Paxton; editing by Elizabeth Piper)