Pope Francis has for the first time publicly listed China's Uyghur minority among the world's persecuted peoples, CNN reported on Tuesday.
This drew the ire of Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying the pontiff’s claim was "totally groundless."
"There are 56 ethnic groups in China, and the Uyghur ethnic group is an equal member of the big family of the Chinese nation,” Zhao said. “The Chinese government has always treated [all] the minority groups equally and protected their legitimate rights and interests."
The pope made his statement in a new book, "Let Us Dream: The Path to A Better Future," which was published on Monday and broke his silence on allegations of widespread human right abuses in China against the Uyghur.
"I think often of persecuted peoples: the Rohingya, the poor Uyghurs, the Yazidi -- what ISIS did to them was truly cruel -- or Christians in Egypt and Pakistan killed by bombs that went off while they prayed in church," Francis said in the book.
The U.S. State Department has said as many as two million Uyghurs, who are predominately Muslim, are among other minority groups that have been sent to detention centers in Xinjiang, where they are subjected to indoctrination, abuse, and sterilization.
Beijing denies the allegations and insists the camps are vocational training centers to deal with the threat of religious extremism.
The Vatican recently extended a controversial deal with China over the appointment of bishops in mainland China.The details of the agreement have never been made public and was criticized by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
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