China warned the United States on Wednesday against using religious incidents as a pretext to interfere in its domestic affairs, after the U.S. expressed concern over a series of self-immolations by Tibetans.
At least 15 Buddhist monks, nuns and former monks are believed to have set themselves on fire in the past year, mostly in traditionally Tibetan areas of southwestern Sichuan province. Most have chanted for Tibetan freedom and the return of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled to India amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
Three men reportedly set themselves on fire in the past week.
The U.S. State Department on Monday said it was seriously concerned by the latest reports of self-immolations. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the incidents reflected "enormous anger and enormous frustration" over severe Chinese government restrictions on human rights and religious freedom.
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said the government "attaches great importance and safeguards the basic rights of ethnic groups, including their freedom of religious belief."
"We firmly oppose making use of religious affairs to interfere in China's domestic affairs," he added.
The continued self-immolations do not "meet the aspiration of people in Tibet for realizing a peaceful life," Liu said.
China has accused supporters of the Dalai Lama of encouraging the self-immolations.
China claims Tibet has always been part of its territory, but many Tibetans say the Himalayan region was virtually independent for centuries.