Indonesia blasphemy protest swells to crowd of 200,000

Indonesia blasphemy protest swells to crowd of 200,000
Indonesian Muslims gather to attend a rally calling for the arrest of Jakarta's Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, who is accused of insulting the Koran, in Jakarta, Indonesia Dec 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters
Published: 10:35 AM, December 2, 2016
Updated: 1:35 PM, December 2, 2016

JAKARTA —  At least 200,000 conservative Muslims rallied in the Indonesian capital on Friday (Dec 2) in the second major protest in a month against its minority Christian governor. 

Organisers had agreed to concentrate the protest around the vaulting national monument in central Jakarta to reduce disruptions but the area quickly overflowed. 

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who is a political ally of the Jakarta governor and angered some by being out of Jakarta during the first protest, went to the national monument to join Friday prayers with the sprawling crowd.

Police say 22,000 officers and 5,000 soldiers can be called on to ensure the demonstration stays orderly. National Police spokesman Rikwanto, who goes by one name, said police estimated 200,000 people were on the streets of central Jakarta.

Separately, police said they had arrested eight people suspected of treason including Ms Rahmawati, who is a younger sister of former President Megawati Sukarnoiputri, and a well-known musician turned politician Ahmad Dani. Two other people were arrested for alleged crimes under Indonesia's law on electronic information and transactions.

A protest Nov 4 against Gov Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, who is being prosecuted for blasphemy, attracted about 100,000 people. After nightfall, it turned violent, with one death and dozens injured. Police want Friday's protest to disperse in the early afternoon following prayers.

The crowds massed in the area of the national monument formed a sea of white that spilled into surrounding streets while gridlocked motorists sat on the sidewalks. 

Some held huge banners calling Gov Ahok a blasphemer who should be jailed while others chanted and prayed. The blasphemy controversy erupted in September when a video circulated online in which Gov Ahok criticised detractors who argued the Quran prohibits Muslims from having a non-Muslim leader. It has challenged the image of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, as practicing a moderate form of Islam and has shaken the government of Jokowi.

Ms Lisnawati Djohar, a resident of West Sumatra's Padang city, said she flew to Jakarta with a dozen friends for the protest.

"I've been called to defend Islam," she said. "As a Muslim, I feel guilty if I refuse a demand to defend my religion. I believe Ahok insulted the holy Quran and it's hurt us."

Roads leading into the city were also clogged as white-robed protesters walked to the city centre from corners of the sprawling metropolis. 

Speaking on the main stage at the national monument, National Police Chief Gen. Mr Tito Karnavian called for the protesters to support the legal process in the blasphemy case.

"We have worked to finalise the dossier and have handed over to the prosecutors. Therefore, I request support from all of you so that the legal process goes well,'' he said as the crowd cheered "God is Great".

The accusation of blasphemy has animated the political opponents of Gov Ahok and President Jokowi, including hard-liners who have used the issue to seize a national stage for their extreme agenda, which includes Shariah law.

Gov Ahok's blasphemy case took a step forward Thursday when it was formally accepted for trial. The offence is punishable by up to five years in prison. 

Police say Gov Ahok can't leave the country during the case. However, hard-line Muslim groups continue to demand he be arrested.

Gov Ahok, the first ethnic Chinese to be Jakarta governor and the first Christian in half a century, is campaigning for a second term in elections due in February. AP