WASHINGTON • The United States has denounced China's treatment of its Uighur Muslims in unusually strong terms, adding to a growing list of disputes in increasingly turbulent relations between the two powers.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced alarm after a United Nations report described the mass internment of Uighurs under the pretext of preventing extremism in the western Xinjiang region, where the minority group is concentrated.
"Hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of Uighurs are held against their will in so-called re-education camps, where they're forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses," Mr Pompeo said in a speech on the state of religious freedom around the world. "Their religious beliefs are decimated."
Mr Pompeo did not say whether the United States would take punitive measures.
Even so, the remarks were striking for their tone, with President Donald Trump's administration putting human rights on the back seat in relations with allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The Trump administration itself has faced criticism at home and abroad for its stance on Muslims, with the President barring entry to citizens of several Muslim-majority countries soon after he took office.
Mr Pompeo also expressed concern about the fate of Christians in China, who he said had been targeted in a government crackdown.
The government, he said, has been "closing churches, burning Bibles and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith".
China has rejected the findings of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying last month said the report was "based on so-called information that is yet to be verified and has no factual basis". She also said China was doing what was needed to combat extremism and terrorism on its western frontier.
Uighurs have long complained of systematic discrimination in the region, which activists call East Turkestan. Tensions are especially rife in areas that have seen large-scale migration from China's dominant Han ethnicity.
The US' fresh focus on human rights comes as trade disputes mount between the world's two largest economies.
The two countries will launch new tariffs tomorrow, with Washington targeting US$200 billion (S$271 billion) in Chinese exports and Beijing hitting US$60 billion worth of American products.