Demonstrators wave Uyghur nationalist flags in central Istanbul as they hold up photos of missing relatives caught up in China's crackdown on the Uyghur minority group.
Uyghurs plead for answers about family in China
03:39 - Source: CNN
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a soft line on China’s mass detention centers in Xinjiang while in the Chinese capital Beijing this week, in a departure from the previous harsh criticisms made by his government.

Turkey is one of the few Muslim-majority countries to have criticized China’s “re-education” camps, where the US State Department says up to two million Muslim-majority Uyghurs are being held.

But after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Erdogan said he believed it was possible to “find a solution to this issue that takes into consideration the sensitivities on both sides,” according to his communications director.

Beijing calls the controversial facilities voluntary “vocational training centers,” which it says fight Islamic radicalization by re-educating attendees. But rights groups claim they are forced labor facilities, and detainees are sent there without trial or the possibility of release. Former detainees say the camps are more like jails, with inmates forced to learn Chinese propaganda slogans under the threat of further abuse.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping inspect Chinese honour guards during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 2.

Erdogan was in Beijing after visiting Osaka, Japan, for the G20 summit in late June.

The Turkish leader said he had discussed the “Uyghur issue” with Xi, but cautioned that when the issue is “exploited” it reflects “poorly on the Turkish-Chinese relationship.”

“Those who exploit the issue, those who try to gain something from the issue, by acting emotionally without thinking of the relationship that Turkey has with another country, unfortunately end up costing both the Turkish republic and their kinsman,” he said, during a question and answer session with reporters.

Turkey has a large Uyghur population and the Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim, ethnic group has strong ties to Turkey and other central Asian countries. Thousands of Uyghurs have sought sanctuary in Turkey since the crackdown began.

A ‘great shame for humanity’

In the past, Ankara has taken a much stronger line on Xinjiang, with Erdogan’s foreign ministry in February denouncing the camps as a “great shame for humanity.”

“We call on the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations to take effective measures in order to bring to an end to this human tragedy in Xinjiang,” the ministry said in a statement.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said prisoners were subject to “torture and political brainwashing” in China’s camps, and claimed thousands of children had been separated from their parents by the Chinese government.

Erdogan’s conciliatory comments this week, however, bring him in line with other Muslim leaders who have avoided condemning the controversial camps, despite widespread accusations of anti-Islamic religious persecution.

In an interview with the Financial Times in March, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said he “didn’t know much” about the Xinjiang issue. Pakistan is a close economic and diplomatic ally for the Chinese government.

Although China insists the camps are voluntary training centers, when CNN attempted to visit them in May security guards restricted access to the buildings.

A CNN investigation found that people with no history of radicalization were being imprisoned in the massive re-education camps.

CNN’s Gul Tuysuz contributed reporting.