China denounces US criticism of religious freedom

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BEIJING, Sep 20 (Reuters) China today denounced a US report accusing it of curbing religious freedoms as groundless and an interference in its internal affairs.

In an annual report the US State Department accused China last week of persecuting Christians outside state-sanctioned churches, Tibetant Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs.

''During the period covered by this report, officials continued to scrutinise, and in some cases, harass unregistered religious and spiritual groups,'' the State Department said in the report posted on its Web site (www.state.gov).

The atheist government regularly conducted raids, beatings or detentions against religious adherents who refused to accept official controls, the report said.

China's 8 to 12 million Catholics are divided between an ''above-ground'' church approved by the ruling Communist Party and an ''underground'' church wary of government ties.

Beijing expressed ''strong dissatisfaction'' and ''firm opposition'' to the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

''Respecting and protecting citizens' right to worship freely is a long-standing fundamental policy of the Chinese government. It is a fact that could not be denied and distorted,'' Jiang said in a statement on the ministry's Web site (www.fmprc.gov.cn).

''We demand the US side stop interfering in China's internal affairs in the name of issues like religion and do more things that would help boost mutual understanding and trust,'' she said.

While the US report listed cases of abuses, it also noted some ''improvements and positive developments'' in China's respect for religious freedom as the government emphasised the role of religion in promoting a ''harmonious society''.

REUTERS SZ PM1410

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