Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Diyanet President Ali Eras cover their faces during a prayer on occasion of the opening of the new mosque in Cologne, Germany, on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

At German mosque, Turkey's Erdogan defends soccer players

September 29, 2018 - 10:12 am

COLOGNE, Germany (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wound up a sometimes-fraught visit to Germany on Saturday by condemning the treatment of soccer players of Turkish descent and urging "a joint stance against this racist drift."

Erdogan specifically decried the treatment of the German national team's Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, who were widely criticized for posing for a picture with Erdogan. Ozil quit the national team over the criticism.

"They ostracized our Mesut Ozdil, our Ilkay, who were born and raised in Germany, just because we had a photo taken with them," Erdogan said while speaking at the ribbon-cutting for a new mosque in Cologne.

"As a president, I could not stomach the fact that he was alienated," the Turkish leader told the audience. "We would have liked to see a joint stance against those who have fallen in this racist drift."

Thousands of police secured the area Saturday around the mosque after a demonstration outside the complex by supporters was barred by police for security reasons. Hundreds of anti-Erdogan demonstrators gathered at a separate area instead.

The mosque the Turkish leader helped inaugurate belongs to the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, which has the largest network of mosques in Germany. The mosque visit followed a state banquet Friday that many German opposition politicians skipped.

Dinner guests heard Erdogan reject criticism about the arrests of journalists, lawyers and union officials that followed a failed coup in Turkey.

"It is not our job to protect terrorists," he said.

Nonetheless Erdogan described his visit as a success: "I have stressed that we need to put our difference of views to one side and focus on our common interests."

Erdogan was in Germany for a visit aimed at reducing tensions between the two NATO allies. He had breakfast with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Saturday.

Germany and Turkey have clashed over numerous issues in recent years, including Turkey's jailing of German journalists. The rhetoric escalated to the point where Erdogan called Germany's mainstream parties "enemies of Turkey" and accused German officials of acting like Nazis, prompting Merkel to condemn his comments.