China lodges protest with US after religious freedom report

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has lodged a protest with the United States after a US government commission said Chinese violations of religious freedom were "severe" and"systematic", the Foreign Ministry said on Monday.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan U.S. federal government body, said in a report last week that there were "unprecedented violations" against Christians, Buddhists and Muslims in China last year.

The report urged the US Department of State to re-designate China's government as a top-tier violator, along with 16 other countries, including Myanmar, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing was firmly opposed to the report's findings and had already lodged a diplomatic protest. "This report from the so-called US Commission on International Religious Freedom is full of political bias and makes arbitrary and unfounded criticism of China," Hua told a daily news briefing, adding that Chinese citizens had "ample"freedom religious freedom under law. "The Chinese side has already made representations to the U.S. side and urged the US to cease using religious issues as an excuse to interfere in China's internal affairs." The report said the US State Department had listed China as a "country of particular concern" since 1999.

China has long said that it guarantees religious freedom. However, critics note that the officially atheist ruling Community Party recognises only a handful of state-approved religions - Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism - followers of which must worship under the watch of patriotic religious associations.

Religious minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs in China's western Xinjiang region and Buddhist Tibetans, chafe at strict government controls on their faith, which exiles and activists say have spurred social unrest and violence.

The government describes resistance to its rule in Muslim and Buddhist communities as inspired by outside forces trying to split the country, and regularly cracks down on unregistered religious groups and underground house churches.