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Islamists demand arrest of Jakarta governor

Thousands of Islamists have marched in the heart of Jakarta to demand the arrest of the governor. Religious leaders accuse the minority-Christian administrator of blasphemy over jesting remarks he made about the Koran.

Tens of thousands of Muslim protesters in Indonesia marched Friday to the presidential palace to demand the resignation of the governor of the capital, Jakarta, who they said had insulted the Koran. 

Many of the protesters wore white robes and Muslim caps and gathered at the central Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in the country, before they began moving towards the presidential palace. Fearing violence, police put on a show of force supported by troops and public order officers, while embassies closed, some shops shuttered and Jakarta's normally traffic-clogged streets were nearly empty.

The accusation of blasphemy against Jakarta Gov. Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese and minority Christian, who is an ally of the country's president, has galvanized his political opponents in the Muslim-majority nation of 250 million people, and given a notorious group of hardliners a national stage.

The protesters, led by a group called the Islamic Defenders Front, are calling for Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahja Purnama, a Christian and the first ethnic Chinese in the job, to be jailed for blasphemy. They say he insulted the Koran by dismissing a political attack by an opponent who urged opposition to Purnama by citing a verse from the Koran. He has since apologized.

Indonesien Basuki Tjahaja Purnama Guverneur von Jakarta (Imago)

Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama

Blasphemy is a criminal offense in Indonesia, and prosecutions have increased in the past decade though most people practice a moderate form of Islam. The London-based rights group Amnesty International documented 106 convictions between 2004 and 2014 with some imprisoned for up to five years.

Indonesien Jakarta Demonstration von Islamisten (picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Ibrahim)

Muslim protesters gathered calling for the arrest of Jakarta's ethnic Chinese and Christian Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama

The simmering political climate has provided an opening for the Islamic Defenders Front to burnish its credentials as the protector of Indonesia's majority faith at the expense of mainstream Muslim groups. 

Ahok is popular with the city's middle class. He is known as a blunt speaker who doesn't tolerate corruption and articulates a vision to make the chaotic, dysfunctional city more like clean, orderly and efficient Singapore. But the anti-corruption stance has made him enemies, and the evictions of thousands of the city's poorest people to make way for urban improvement has stoked anger and resentment and played to a stereotype of Chinese as exploiters of Indonesia's poor Muslim masses.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and other national figures have called for a peaceful demonstration amid fears the self-styled "Islamic State's" (IS) supporters might try to cause chaos. Indonesia suffered a series of Islamist militant attacks in the last decade. In the most serious incident, 202 people were killed in bombings of a nightclub on the island of Bali in 2002. An attack in Jakarta early this year by IS supporters raised fears of a new wave of violent militancy.

jar/sms (AP, Reuters)

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