Uighurs have long complained of systematic discrimination in the region, which activists call East Turkestan, with tensions especially rife in areas that have seen large-scale migration from China's dominant Han ethnicity
The United States on Friday 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," Pompeo said in a speech on the state of religious freedom around the world.
"Their religious beliefs are decimated," Pompeo said.
In a letter to Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, both Republican and Democratic members of Congress late last month called for sanctions on Chinese officials implicated in the internment of Uighurs.
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 as a candidate calling for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States and, soon after taking office, barring entry to citizens of several Muslim-majority countries.
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 defends treatment
In an interview earlier in the week, Pompeo had described China as a greater threat to the United States than Russia, saying that Beijing was a "non-transparent government."
"It treats our intellectual property horribly, it treats its religious minorities horribly," he told Fox News.
China has rejected the findings of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last month that the report was "based on so-called information that is yet to be verified and has no factual basis."
Hua added that 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, with tensions especially rife in areas that have seen large-scale migration from China's dominant Han ethnicity.
The Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group that uses an alternative spelling for the minority group's name, has estimated that an entire 10 percent of the population has been detained as part of an indoctrination campaign.
The fresh focus on human rights comes as trade disputes mount between the world's two largest economies.
The two countries will launch new tariffs on Monday, with Washington targeting $200 billion in Chinese exports and Beijing hitting $60 billion worth of American products.
The two sides have already imposed tariffs on $50 billion in goods from each country.
Trump in his first year appeared to relish a chummy rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he invited to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. But relations have wobbled as Trump takes an increasingly hard line to protect domestic industry.
Moving a step further, the United States said Thursday it was placing financial sanctions on the Equipment Development Department of China's defense ministry as well as its top administrator for violating sanctions on Russia by buying Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 surface-to-air missiles.
Russia and China both lashed out at the move, with Beijing urging the United States to withdraw the sanctions or "bear the consequences."