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Monks hold candles as they pray during a ceremony to celebrate Buddha's birthday at the Yufo Temple in Shanghai in this May 6, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Aly Song

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China has lodged a diplomatic protest with the United States after a U.S. government commission said Chinese violations of religious freedom last year remained "severe", the Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan U.S. federal government body, said in a report this week that there were "systematic, egregious and ongoing abuses" in China against Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and others.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China fully respected religious freedom. But year in, year out, the United States attacked China on religion, ignoring the facts and distorting the situation.

"China is resolutely opposed to this and has already lodged stern representations with the U.S. side," he told a daily news briefing.

"We demand the U.S. side objectively and justly view China's religious policy and Chinese citizens' freedom of belief and stop using the religious issue to interfere in China's internal affairs," Hong added.

"The U.S. side should reflect more on its own problems and not always gesticulate about other countries."

The report urged the U.S. Department of State to re-designate China's government as a top-tier violator, along with eight other countries, including Myanmar, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

China has long said that it guarantees religious freedom. However, critics note that the officially atheist ruling Community Party recognises only a handful of state-approved religions – Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism – followers of which must worship under the watch of patriotic religious associations.

Religious minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs in China's western Xinjiang region and Buddhist Tibetans, chafe at strict government controls on their faith, which exiles and activists say have spurred social unrest and violence.

The government describes resistance to its rule in Muslim and Buddhist communities as inspired by outside forces trying to split the country, and regularly cracks down on unregistered religious groups and underground house churches.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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