CNN  — 

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has dodged a question on the reported detention of as many as two million Muslims in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, saying he “didn’t know much” about the issue.

In an interview with the Financial Times released on Wednesday, the leader of the mainly Muslim nation was questioned about his stance on the mass detention centers where many of China’s Muslim-majority Uyghurs have been sent. Activists and former detainees say the camps are designed to eradicate Uyghur culture and Muslim religious practices.

“Frankly, I don’t know much about that,” said Khan, whose government is a major beneficiary of Chinese aid.

When pressed, he said the Muslim world was going through “its worst phase” but demurred on Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang. “If I had enough knowledge I would speak about it. It is not so much in the papers,” he said.

The Chinese government has been fiercely criticized, mainly by Western countries, over its Xinjiang camps. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Beijing to “release all arbitrarily detained” Uyghurs after meeting with survivors on Wednesday.

In February, Turkey became one of the first major Muslim nations to denounce the camps, describing them as a “great shame for humanity.”

But other Muslim-majority countries with close economic and diplomatic links to China – including Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and significantly Pakistan – have refrained from speaking out.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 3.

One of the world’s largest Muslim nations, Pakistan has been a longtime friend and trading partner of Beijing – their relationship is often described by Chinese diplomats as an “all-weather friendship.”

Pakistan has also benefited greatly from Chinese infrastructure spending, as part of President Xi Jinping’s global Belt and Road initiative, and is one of Beijing’s biggest arms buyers.

Between 2008 and 2017, Islamabad purchased more than $6 billion of Chinese weaponry, according to think tank CSIS.

Khan’s comments to the FT mirror remarks he made to TRT World in January, when he said he “didn’t know the exact situation” in Xinjiang. Instead, he praised Beijing for its assistance since he came to power in 2018.

“I can tell you one thing, the Chinese have been a breath of fresh air for us … They have been extremely helpful to us,” he said, adding there were some areas of assistance China wanted to keep “confidential.”

China has acknowledged the existence of the camps, but disputes the number of people held in them. It has repeatedly denied reports of torture and brainwashing inside the Xinjiang facilities, saying they are voluntary “vocational training centers” designed to combat extremism.

On Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the US should stop attacking the Chinese government over Xinjiang, adding that its re-education program was “fully supported by people of all ethnic groups.”

But multiple witnesses from inside the camps describe facilities resembling prisons, physical and mental abuse, and compulsory rote lessons in Communist Party propaganda.