BEIJING - China has blasted a State Department report that criticized its controls on religion, saying Thursday that the document was prejudiced and an attempt to meddle in domestic affairs.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry's condemnation of the International Religious Freedom Report released this week was predictable -- and the latest reminder of how human rights issues remain a chronic irritant between Washington and Beijing.
The annual report issued Monday found a "marked deterioration" in state respect for religious freedom in China in 2011, and cited tighter restrictions on religion, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei adamantly disagreed.
"Chinese people of every ethnicity enjoy full freedom of religion and faith," Hong said in comments issued on the ministry's website.
"The U.S. side should abandon its prejudices," he said.
"Stop exploiting religious issues to meddle in China's internal affairs, and don't do things that harm Sino-American relations and mutual trust and cooperation," he added.
A stressed relationship
Tension between China and the United States spans issues such as the U.S. trade deficit, American arms sales to Taiwan, and mutual wariness over regional intentions and military plans.
U.S. criticism in the report included a claim that "official interference in the practice of these religious traditions exacerbated grievances and contributed to at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans in 2011."
Since March 2011, there have been more than 40 self-immolations by Tibetans, including Buddhist monks and nuns, reflecting anger over Chinese controls.
The Chinese government faces challenges by Buddhist Tibetans, who revere the Dalai Lama and support Tibetan independence; members of the Islamic Uighur minority in northwest Xinjiang Province who protest Chinese rule; the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual sect, which authorities accuse of practicing a dangerous cult in the guise of promoting health exercises; and the many underground house churches and religious believers, including Catholics who recognize the authority of the Vatican, who are not part of the officially-sanctioned churches.
The rift between Beijing and the Vatican was dramatized again last month when a Shanghai bishop, ordained with the Vatican's approval, was taken away by officials after he declared he was quitting the Communist-led Patriotic Catholic Association, according to reports.
After a meeting on human rights in late July, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said Beijing was moving in the wrong direction on human rights.
NBC News staff and Reuters contributed to this report.
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