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Indonesia faces test as Christian governor stands trial

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is the first Christian to govern Jakarta in more than 50 years © AFP/File / Bay Ismoyo

Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec 12 – Jakarta’s Christian governor will stand trial on Tuesday accused of blasphemy in a high-profile case that has emboldened hardline groups and stoked fears of growing intolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — the first Christian to govern Jakarta in more than 50 years — will defend allegations that he insulted the Koran and fight calls for his imprisonment under Indonesia’s tough blasphemy laws.

Purnama, known for his outspoken style, outraged Muslims when he controversially quoted a passage from the Islamic holy text while campaigning in elections for the Jakarta governorship.

His remarks ignited a protest movement by hardliners, who have long railed against a non-Muslim in city hall but failed to dent the governor’s popularity.

But their rallying cry to defend Islam and punish “the blasphemer” attracted unprecedented support from Muslims both moderate and conservative, who marched against the governor in numbers not seen in many years.

The case is being viewed in part as a test of religious tolerance in Indonesia, where a spike in attacks on minorities has eroded a reputation for diversity and inclusiveness.

“If he’s found guilty, this could be the biggest setback for pluralism in Indonesia’s history,” said Tobias Basuki from the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

– Race a factor –

Protesters pose in front of a poster of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his nickname Ahok, after a demonstration at Jakarta’s National Monument Park on December 2, 2016 © AFP/File / Goh Chai Hin

Purnama fell foul of Indonesia’s archaic blasphemy laws when he insinuated that his opponents had used a Koranic verse to trick people into voting against him.

An edited version of his speech went viral online, sparking outrage far beyond Jakarta, where Purnama has ruled since his predecessor Joko Widodo became president in late 2014.

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The governor apologised but Indonesia’s highest clerical body, and a slew of radical groups, declared the remarks blasphemous and urged authorities to bring charges.

Critics want the country’s blasphemy laws overhauled. The legislation was rarely used during the 32-year rule of strongman Suharto, but in recent years it has been exploited to persecute minorities, rights groups say.

Purnama is not only Christian but ethnic Chinese, a community long mistrusted in Indonesia, and his race made pinning him for blasphemy easier, political expert Syamsudin Haris told AFP.

“Ahok’s ‘Chinese-ness’ is a factor,” he added, using the governor’s popular nickname.

Religious freedom is protected by law in Indonesia but moralising thugs often enforce their own rules, preventing Islamic minorities like Shias and Ahmadis from worshipping and opposing the construction of churches.

The most prominent of these groups, the Islamic Defenders Front, has used the blasphemy scandal to burnish its credentials, staging high-profile events alongside political leaders including President Joko Widodo.

“A group that used to hound the public and the government has now been legitimised, and even accommodated, by the government,” said Hendardi, the chairman of the rights group Setara Institute, who goes by one name.

– ‘Trial by mob’ –

Indonesian Muslims gather at Jakarta’s National Monument Park for a rally against the capital’s Christian Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, on December 2, 2016 © AFP/File

Widodo — like presidents before him — has been accused of ignoring the rising influence of intolerant hardline groups, which have flourished in the nearly two decades of democracy since Suharto’s downfall.

The president “did not have the courage” to stand up to these firebrand Muslims, Haris said, fearing a backlash from the electorate, around 90 percent of which follows Islam.

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The populist backlash against Purnama — an ally of Widodo — backed the president even further into a corner.

His efforts at playing peacemaker ahead of a huge rally in November failed, with mobs burning police cars and clashing with riot officers outside the presidential palace.

Widodo was forced to cancel a long-planned visit to Australia to confront the crisis, sparking rumours of a coup. Later, arrests were made over an alleged plot to topple the government.

“The case shows that the government has an enormous task to address political Islam,” Basuki said.

Critics say the controversy is as much about politics as the governor’s foes whip up anger to reduce his support ahead of the hotly-contested February poll.

Purnama was on track to win in February but has been watching his lead crumble as his two opponents — both politically-connected Muslims — have gained ground.

Purnama has refused to bow out of the race, but risks haemorrhaging more support if the blasphemy scandal drags on, Djayadi Hanan from pollster SMRC told AFP.

The trial – which Widodo and the police have vowed to resolved quickly — will have long-lasting ramifications, analysts say, especially if Purnama is sentenced to five years prison as allowed by law.

“The government can’t let this become a trial by mob, because it will set a terrible precedent for our democracy,” said Hendardi.

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