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International relations

Arsenal star criticizes China’s detention camps but club distances itself

Ozil calls Uighurs ‘warriors who resist persecution’

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil in a game in London in November   © Reuters

SHANGHAI (Reuters) -- English soccer club Arsenal tried on Saturday to distance itself from the comments of its star midfielder Mesut Ozil after he posted messages on Twitter and Instagram critical of China's policies toward its Muslim Uighur minority.

"The content he expressed is entirely Ozil's personal opinion," the official account of Arsenal Football Club said in a post on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform. "As a football club, Arsenal always adheres to the principle of not being involved in politics." The club's Twitter account did not have a post addressing Ozil's comments as of Sunday morning.

Ozil's posts called Uighurs "warriors who resist persecution" and criticised both China's crackdown and the silence of Muslims in response.

"(In China) Qurans are burned, mosques were closed down, Islamic theological schools, madrasas were banned, religious scholars were killed one by one. Despite all this, Muslims stay quiet," Ozil, who is a Muslim, said in his posts.

Replies to Arsenal's Weibo post were angry, with one showing a shredded Ozil soccer jersey next to a pair of scissors and others demanding he be expelled from the club.

A search on Weibo for the hashtag translatable as "Ozil issues inappropriate statement", which had been one of the top trending topics on the platform, returned no results on Saturday afternoon.

Weibo frequently censors discussion of sensitive topics, particularly amid a push by Beijing to clean up its internet.

The Chinese Football Association told government-backed news outlet, The Paper, on Saturday it was "outraged and disappointed" by Ozil's remarks, describing them as "inappropriate".

"Ozil's comments are undoubtedly hurtful to the Chinese fans who closely follow him, and at the same time his comments also hurt the feelings of Chinese people. This is something we cannot accept," the news outlet quoted an unnamed official from the association as saying.

The Global Times newspaper said on its official Twitter account on Sunday that state broadcaster CCTV had removed Arsenal's Sunday match against Manchester City from its broadcast schedule after Ozil's comments "disappointed fans and football governing authorities".

CCTV 5's broadcast schedule plans to show a taped match between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers instead, according to Reuters' checks. CCTV did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The United Nations and human rights groups estimate that between 1 million and 2 million people, mostly ethnic Uighur Muslims, have been detained in harsh conditions in Xinjiang as part of what Beijing calls an anti-terrorism campaign.

China has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Uighurs.

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