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In wake of riots, Indonesian president cancels state visit to Australia

Indonesia's president has canceled a trip following violent protests against a Christian governor accused of insulting Islam. Islamist vigilantes demand prosecution of the presidential ally on blasphemy charges.

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo canceled a two-day visit to Australia on Saturday following a massive rally in the capital by Muslim hard-liners descended into violence, leaving one dead and nearly 200 people injured. Some 50,000 people marched in Jakarta on Friday to protest comments made by governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, with clashes erupting between police and demonstrators - one of whom reportedly died of an asthma attack.

Widodo last visited Australia in 2014 for the G20 shortly after being elected as president, but this month's trip would have marked his first official bilateral visit. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a Saturday statement, "We were sorry we would not be able to welcome him to Australia tomorrow but entirely understood the need for him to remain in Indonesia at this time."

The protest in Jakarta was sparked by hardline Islamist leaders, who brought out their supporters angry that the Jakarta governor, known by his nickname Ahok, had insulted Islam when he criticized his political opponents who used references from the Koran to attack him. Purnama - who is an ethnic Chinese Christian - later apologized, but his opponents have built a groundswell of support calling for his arrest and incarceration.

Deutschland Indonesien Joko Widodo bei Merkel (Getty Images/S. Gallup)

The Foreign Ministry said that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's trip to Australia would be rescheduled because "current development has required the president to stay in Indonesia."

Demonstrations were initially orderly, but turned violent in the evening when protesters refused to go home, resulting in thousands of hardliners clashing with police, setting vehicles ablaze and hurling bottles and rocks at officers. At least 160 people were treated for the effects of tear gas and eight police officers were reported injured in the protest, police said. Authorities arrested 10 people suspected to be instigators of the violence.

Meanwhile, police said they would question the governor on Monday over allegations of blasphemy - a criminal offense in Indonesia - and vowed the matter would be handled "quickly and transparently."

The Islamic Defenders Front, a vigilante group that advocates imposing Shariah law, organized the mass protests and are pushing for the prosecution and removal of the governor, a key political ally of the president. Indonesia has a population of 250 million making it the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation.

jar/sms (AP, AFP)