The U.S. State Department on Wednesday accused the Chinese government of criminalizing religious expression and turning its entire Xinjiang region, home to the Muslim Uyghur minority, into an "open-air prison."

The department on the same day released an annual report on international religious freedom which highlighted the U.S. government's concerns over Beijing's repression of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim groups in Xinjiang through mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, forced sterilization and other abuses.

"China broadly criminalizes religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said upon the release of the 2020 report.

China has consistently said its detention camps are vocational training centers established to pre-emptively combat terrorism and religious extremism.

Calling the situation "dire," Daniel Nadel of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom said he sees a shift from a "dramatic reliance" on camps for "re-education," or for forced labor and other purposes.

"What the (Chinese) government has created, it's quite an ambitious effort to essentially turn the entire region into an open-air prison," he said at a press conference.

People in the far-western autonomous region are under heavy surveillance and minders are assigned to live among the Uyghurs to keep tabs on them, Nadel added.

The senior official also pointed out that, along with China, North Korea is among the worst violators of religious freedom and the two countries are together in "this hall of shame."

Hundreds of thousands of people in North Korea remain in prison camps, including for their religious activities, Nadel said, noting that "these are issues of genuine concern" to the administration of President Joe Biden, which puts human rights issues at the center of its foreign policy.

But he emphasized there would be "no trade-off between addressing human rights issues or addressing other matters of national security," apparently in mind of the Biden administration's desire to work toward ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons.

Blinken also criticized countries such as Iran and Russia for their treatment of minority religious groups, while adding that military coup leaders in Myanmar are among those responsible for "ethnic cleansing and other atrocities against Rohingya," most of whom are Muslim.

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