THE streets of the Indonesian capital on Friday were flooded with tens of thousands of hardline Muslim protesters demanding the arrest of its minority-Christian governor who they allege has committed blasphemy.
Security forces, including the police and the military, beefed up operations days ahead of the protests in Jakarta to prevent violence, while shops and embassies closed throughout the day with the city’s usually-congested roads almost devoid of vehicles.
According to the Associated Press, the predominantly male demonstrators – most of whom wearing white shirts and skull caps – amassed at the Istiqlal Mosque for the protest following weekly Friday prayers and marched to the nearby presidential palace.
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Protests are also taking place in other cities including Medan on Sumatra, Makassar in Sulawesi and Malang in East Java, the news agency said.
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, and given a notorious group of hard-liners a national stage.
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A vigilante group pushing for the implementation of Shariah law, called the Islamic Defenders Front, demanded Ahok’s arrest after he reportedly joked to an audience about a passage in the Quran that could be interpreted as prohibiting Muslims from accepting non-Muslims as leaders.
Following the impasse, Ahok, who is running for a second term as Jakarta governor in polls due February next year, has made an open apology to the Muslim community and met with police who questioned him over the incident.
Many protesters were spotted wearing headbands emblazoned with “Arrest Ahok” while others used loudhailers to chant hate-filled messages. Many held aloft flags and banners with slogans such as “Ahok is an enemy of Islam”, AP reported.
“We are here because we want to defend the verses of God that have been abused by Ahok,” protestor Nasrullah Achmad said, as quoted by AP.
“Only one thing can stop us: Ahok’s arrest,” said Achmad, who came from Bekasi, a Jakarta satellite city, with dozens of others from his Islamic study group.
They raised clenched fists and shouted “God is Great.”
The protestors want Ahok, a Christian, arrested for allegedly insulting the Koran. All peaceful so far. pic.twitter.com/ShYvCnsxiR
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Although most Indonesians practice a moderate form of Islam, blasphemy remains a criminal offence in the country which has seen a spike in prosecutions in the past decade.
Between 2004 and 2014, Amnesty International documented 106 convictions with some offenders being slapped with five years of prison.
Police had earlier anticipated up to 100,000 protestors in the capital but had yet to provide any official estimates on the number as at press time.
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The Jakarta Post quoted Jakarta Police chief Insp. Gen. Mochamad Iriawan as saying that 21,000 personnel from the National Police, the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the Jakarta Public Order Agency (Satpol PP) were deployed to secure the protest.
The personnel was also tasked with protecting various venues across the city, including government offices and shopping malls.
Mochamad said on-duty police personnel were barred from bringing firearms or bayonets to the protest while five groups of policemen were tasked with chanting religious verses to calm the protesters if they became violent.
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At the time of this writing, no untoward incidents have been reported.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press