Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s contentious visits to Yasukuni Shrine are a matter of religious freedom, the government said Tuesday, rejecting criticism leveled by a powerful U.S. congressman.

The remarks followed media reports from Washington that Henry Hyde, chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, is seeking a guarantee from Koizumi that he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine if he is invited to deliver a speech to Congress during a trip to Washington planned for late June.

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