US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has thrown his support behind Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil after the player criticised China’s policies towards Uighur Muslims.
Mr Pompeo, who is America’s top diplomat, said Beijing could censor the football team’s games but could not hide human rights violations.
China’s state TV pulled Arsenal’s match against Manchester City from its schedule on Sunday after the German star posted messages on Twitter and Instagram where he hit out at Beijing.
The Global Times, China’s national English language newspaper, reported the match would not be broadcast on CCTV 5 because Ozil’s remarks had “disappointed fans and football governing authorities”.
On social media Ozil, who is a practising Muslim of Turkish descent, called Uighurs“warriors who resist persecution” and criticised Beijing’s crackdown and the silence of Muslims in response.
He wrote in his posts on Friday: “(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.”
Arsenal tried to distance itself from the comments on Saturday.
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However, an unexpected show of support came on Tuesday as Mr Pompeo wrote on Twitter that he backed the footballer and accused Beijing of human rights violations.
He said: “China’s Communist Party propaganda outlets can censor @MesutOzil1088 and @Arsenal’s games all season long, but the truth will prevail. The CCP can’t hide its gross #HumanRights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths from the world.”
Meanwhile, Amnesty International regional director Nicholas Bequelin has said the north London football club must not “buckle under pressure”.
Mr Bequelin said: “With their player being quite heavily criticised by some in China, it’s important that Arsenal doesn’t buckle under pressure and attempt to stifle Ozil’s right to freely express his opinions.”
China is the Premier League’s most lucrative overseas broadcast market, with the rights sold for $700m (£525m) in the 2019-2022 cycle.
Arsenal and Manchester City kicked off at 4pm UK time on Sunday, which was midnight on Monday morning in China. City won the clash 3-0 in a game which Ozil played in and was later substituted.
The match broadcast was replaced with a recording of Tottenham’s 2-1 victory over Wolves from earlier on Sunday.
The United Nations and human rights groups estimate that between one million and two 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.