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Arsenal star Mesut Ozil deleted from Chinese football computer game after prayer for Uighurs

A supporter of the Uighur Muslim community holds a placard thanking Mesut Ozil [AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 19 December, 2019

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Chinese internet company NetEase will remove footballer Mesut Ozil from the computer game Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 over his condemnation of China's treatment of Uighur Muslims.

Footballer Mesut Ozil will no longer feature in the computer game Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) 2020 Mobile in China after he raised awareness on the plight of Uighur Muslims in northwestern Xinjiang province.

The Arsenal midfielder was deleted from the game over a heartfelt tweet in which he prayed for the oppressed minority group.

Ozil's tweet about the Uighur community prompted China, which the UN believes holds more than a million Uighurs in internment camps, to brand him as having been taken in by "fake news".

Chinese authorities also censored Sunday's Arsenal v Manchester City football match. Now Chinese internet company NetEase, which distributes the Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) franchise in China, says it will remove Ozil from three PES games, the Independent reported.

"The German player Ozil posted an extreme statement about China on social media. The speech hurt the feelings of Chinese fans and violated the sports spirit of love and peace. We do not understand, accept or forgive this!" NetEase said in a statement on Weibo.

Ozil's comments also caused a furious backlash from offended Chinese Arsenal fans on Monday, who took to social media to lash out at the German-Turkish footballer and burn his t-shirt.

English football club Arsenal distanced itself from Ozil's comments. "Regarding the comments made by Mesut Ozil on social media, Arsenal must make a clear statement," the club posted on Chinese social media site Weibo on Saturday.

Read more: 10 things you need to know about China's Xinjiang crisis

But Ozil received support from an unlikely source on Sunday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defending the Arsenal player.

"China's Communist Party propaganda outlets can censor Mesut Özil and Arsenal's game all season long, but the truth will prevail," Pompeo tweeted. "The CCP can't hide its gross human rights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths from the world," he added.

'Muslim community is mute'

The row began when Ozil tweeted a heartfelt prayer for the Uighur Muslim minority on Thursday, expressing his outrage at the lack of action from Muslim countries.

"The Muslim community is mute," Ozil wrote in the tweet, which shared a sincere prayer written in Turkish over the blue Uighur flag.

The Uighur community in Xinjiang, northwest China, has faced an unprecedented crackdown in recent years, with at least one million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities held in internment camps that authorities downplay as "vocational education centres".

Ozil, a German national with Turkish family roots, began his prayer with: "Oh East Turkestan", the name Uighur activists use for the independent state they want to see established in Xinjiang.

"Don't they know that years later what our brothers and sisters will remember of these bitter days is not the torture of the oppressors but the silence of their Muslim brothers?" the football star asked.

"Oh Lord, please help our brothers and sisters in East Turkestan."

The 31-year-old Arsenal midfielder slammed the silence of Muslim countries, and said it was shameful compared to the media coverage the issue has received in the West.

Read more: Male Chinese officials sleep in same bed as women Uighur hosts during 'monitoring' visits

They are burning Qurans, they are closing mosques, they are banning madrasas [religious schools], religious leaders are being killed one by one, they are forcing our brothers into camps and in their places they are placing Chinese men with the families, forcing sisters to marry them," he wrote, listing a series of alleged human rights abuses by the Chinese government.

"Despite all this, the Muslim community is mute."

'Re-education camps'

The international community has largely been silent on the issue and Muslim countries were among thirty-seven states which cosigned a letter in the United Nations defending China's treatment of Uighur Muslims in July.

Turkey was one of the region's few voices willing to risk its economic relationship with China by expressing support for the Uighur cause.

But recently President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has struck a softer tone, saying a solution could be found to help thousands of Uighur Muslims interned in Chinese camps "taking into account the sensitivities" of both sides.

China initially denied the existence of these camps, but now claims that its detention centres are not concentration camps but "re-education camps" where "students" are trained to successfully reintegrate into Chinese society. It claims the camps are a necessary measure to counter Islamic extremism.

Read more: Uighur Muslims using TikTok to expose plight of relatives detained by China

Human rights groups say that Uighurs and other Muslim minorities endure political indoctrination at these camps.

Earlier this year, detained Uighur women in China's western province of Xinjiang said they were released by proving their "adaptability to Chinese society" by drinking alcohol and eating pork.

Radio Free Asia revealed in November that Chinese men often sleep in the same beds as the Uighur women, whose husbands are detained in prison camps, during week-long monitoring sessions.

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