Pope Francis has for the first time publicly named Uyghurs, a major indigenous ethnic group in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, among a list of the world's persecuted peoples amid reports of widespread human rights abuses in the region.
"I think often of persecuted peoples: the Rohingya, the poor Uyghurs, the Yazidi -- what [Islamic State] did to them was truly cruel -- or Christians in Egypt and Pakistan killed by bombs that went off while they prayed in church," Francis says in a new book, Let Us Dream: The Path to A Better Future, published on November 23.
The UN has estimated that 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim indigenous people of Xinjiang are being held in what it described as "counterextremism centers" in the region.
The UN has also said millions more have been forced into internment camps.
The U.S. State Department has said as many as 2 million Uyghurs and representatives of Xinjiang's other indigenous ethnic groups have been taken to so-called reeducation detention centers in the region.
Several people who served time in the so-called reeducation camps and their relatives have told RFE/RL that they were subjected to indoctrination, physical abuse, and sterilization.
China insists that the facilities are "vocational education centers" aimed at helping people steer clear of terrorism and allowing them to be reintegrated into society.
Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson called Francis’s remarks "absolutely groundless."
“People of all ethnic groups enjoy the full rights of survival, development, and freedom of religious belief," Zhao said at a daily briefing on November 24.
China and the Vatican have had no formal relations since the Communist Party cut ties and arrested Catholic clerics soon after seizing power in 1949.
Uyghurs are the largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang followed by Kazakhs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. Han, China's largest ethnicity, are the second-largest community in Xinjiang.