By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN) - Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has tracked the world's worst abusers of religious rights.
As the most recent report notes, it has never lacked for material. Persecutions of people of faith are rising across the globe.
Among the most worrying trends, according to the State Department, are "authoritarian governments that restrict their citizens’ ability to practice their religion."
In typically bland bureaucratic language, the State Department calls these "countries of particular concern." But the designation can come with some teeth.
Sudan, for example, where a Christian woman was sentenced to death this week for leaving Islam, is ineligible for some types of foreign aid.
In addition to Sudan, here are the State Department's "countries of particular concern." You might call them "The Worst Places in the World to Be Religious."
By Sarah Brown, CNN
(CNN) – Millions of Muslims began the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, which represents one of the largest annual human gatherings on the planet.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, a journey every Muslim is expected to take in his or her lifetime if the person is physically and financially able.
This year, the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca is hosting more than 2 million Muslims, about 1 million fewer than last year, according to the Associated Press.
Our iReport team has asked pilgrims who have performed the Hajj about how the experience changed them - and for their advice to those undertaking the pilgrimage for the first time.
The result is a mix of spiritual and practical life lessons that transcend Islam.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) - How did Syria go from an internal uprising to a wider clash drawing funding and fighters from across the region?
In a word, Middle East experts say, religion.
Shiite Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have flooded into Syria to defend sacred sites and President Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime. Sunni Muslims, some affiliated with al Qaeda, have rushed in to join rebels, most of whom are Sunni.
Both sides use religious rhetoric as a rallying cry, calling each other "infidels" and "Satan's army."
"That is why it has become so muddy," said professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "The theological question has returned to the center."
By Tim Hume and Samya Ayish, CNN
(CNN) - An Ottoman-era portico in Mecca's Grand Mosque has become the latest battleground in a conflict between those who want to preserve the city's architectural heritage and Saudi authorities pushing for redevelopment.
The 17th century portico - one of the oldest parts of the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest - is being removed by Mecca authorities as part of an expansion project to create more space for soaring numbers of pilgrims.
By Mohammed Jamjoom and Saad Abedine, CNN
Outrage is mounting in Saudi Arabia about the case of a 5-year-old girl who died after allegedly being beaten and tortured by her father, who activists say is an Islamist preacher.
Lama Al-Ghamdi was admitted to King Saud Hospital in Riyadh last March after suffering extensive injuries, including broken ribs, a crushed skull, bruising and burns. Family, activists and officials say she died of her wounds in late October.
Activists say the girl's father, Fayhan Al-Ghamdi is an Islamist evangelist popular in Saudi Arabia for his televised appearances and for speaking on air about the rewards of repenting to God. But they also say he only fancies himself as a cleric and is not recognized by the clerical establishment.
By the CNN Wire Staff
London (CNN) – One of the two women on Saudi Arabia's Olympic team may be pulled from the competition because of the kingdom's insistence that she wear a headscarf in her judo matches.
Saudi and international Olympic officials met late into the night with International Judo Federation representatives to resolve the case of Wojdan Shaherkani, the Saudi Olympic committee said Monday.
The meeting failed to break the deadlock that threatens to keep the kingdom's only female judo competitor from participating Friday, Saudi National Olympic Committee representative Razen Baker said.
By Brian Walker, CNN
(CNN) - Australia appealed for leniency after its citizen was sentenced Wednesday to 500 lashes and a year in prison by a Saudi Arabian court.
Mansor Almaribe, 45, was found guilty of blasphemy after he was arrested last month in Medina while on a pilgrimage, Australian officials said.
It's unclear what Almaribe, a Shia Muslim from Victoria state, said or did to get arrested.
"The ambassador has urgently contacted Saudi authorities and will make strong representations, including to key figures in the Saudi government, seeking leniency," said Kate Sieper, a foreign affairs spokeswoman.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.