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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's foreign minister launched an outspoken attack on China's "abhorrent" treatment of religious minorities on Monday, just weeks before Prime Minister Stephen Harper goes to Beijing in a bid to sell more oil.
John Baird's comments came as a major surprise, given Canada's right-of-center Conservative government has gradually toned down its attacks on Chinese human rights issues over the years in favor of boosting trade.
Baird said in a speech in England that he would speak out against what he saw as attacks on freedom of religion.
"In China, we see Roman Catholic priests, Christian clergy and their laity, worshipping outside of state-sanctioned boundaries, who are continually subject to raids, arrests, and detention," he said in his prepared remarks.
"We see Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uyghur Muslims face harassment, and physical intimidation. These abhorrent acts fly in the face of our core principals, our core values."
China has recently started jailing writers on subversion charges, suggesting a crackdown on dissidents ahead of a leadership transition later in the year.
Neither Harper's chief spokesman nor the Chinese embassy were immediately available for comment.
Chinese troops fired on thousands of Tibetans protesting in southwestern Sichuan province on Monday, killing at least one and wounding more, two overseas advocacy groups said [ID:nL4E8CN6R0]
Some Conservatives have always been suspicious of China and it was not immediately clear whether Baird's words were aimed at a primarily Canadian audience.
"The minister has said himself on countless occasions that often he had to raise difficult subjects and he had to be prepared to do so, no matter who was on the other side of the table, and this is another one of those cases," said Baird spokesman Joseph Lavoie.
Last year Baird vowed to set up an office of religious freedom which he said on Monday would help Canada "speak out when we see religious intolerance and hate being spread".
Harper - accompanied by International Trade Minister Ed Fast - is due to visit China in the second week of February and has made clear he will be talking about energy exports.
Ottawa is keen to sell more oil to China in the wake of Washington's decision to block TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, which would have taken oil sands-derived crude from the province of Alberta to refineries on the Texas coast.
The Canadian government, its eyes now on the Chinese energy market, is openly backing Enbridge Inc's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline which would run from Alberta to the Pacific Coast allowing oil sands crude to be shipped by tanker to Asian markets.
"We must seek new markets for our products and services, and the booming Asia-Pacific economies have shown great interest in Canada's minerals, oil, gas and metals," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said in a speech on Monday.
Chinese firms are taking an increasing interest in the tar sands and have bought $5.5 billion worth of Canadian energy assets and companies since the middle of 2011.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson