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Thousands of Muslims Protest Jakarta's Christian Governor Ahead of Election

Thousands of Muslims Protest Jakarta's Christian Governor Ahead of Election

Member of hardline Muslim groups attend a protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. | (Photo: Antara Foto/Akbar Nugroho Gumay/via Reuters)

Thousands of hardline Muslims marched on the streets in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta Friday, demanding that the city's Christian governor be jailed over a blasphemy case ahead of the city's gubernatorial election.

The protesters, chanting slogans against Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as "Ahok," marched from Istiqlal Mosque in central Jakarta to the nearby presidential palace, which was under heavy police guard, The Associated Press reported.

Police said they had arrested Muhammad Al Khaththath, the leader of the Muslim Peoples Forum umbrella group, and many other activists for suspected treason before the protest. "We are not cowed by the arrest of our leaders," a protester was quoted as saying. "We'll keep fighting for the dignity of Islam. There's no room for kafir (unbeliever) to lead in this nation."

The Southeast Asian country's blasphemy law provides for a maximum penalty of five years in jail, which is enough to disqualify Ahok, the governor of Jakarta and a Christian and ethnic Chinese, from the election.

An aerial view shows members of hardline Muslim groups attending a protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor. The protesters, led by a group called the Islamic Defenders Front, chanted "God is greatest" and waved placards calling for Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, to be jailed for blasphemy. | (Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta)

Ahok won the first round of voting held Feb. 15. In the runoff, scheduled for April 19, Ahok will contest against Anies Baswedan, a former education minister who has the backing of conservative Muslims.

Ahok was appointed the governor of Jakarta in November 2014 after then Gov. Joko Widodo, affectionately known as "Jokowi," was elected president of the country with the world's largest Muslim population. Ahok was Jokowi's deputy at the time. Even during Jokowi's presidential campaign, Indonesia's extremist Muslim groups urged voters to oppose Jokowi to prevent the Christian official from becoming governor.

 Ahok was declared a suspect in the blasphemy case in November 2016, after hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims held a rally to demand his prosecution. The official, who has the backing of President Jokowi," challenged the interpretation of a verse in the Quran that says Muslims cannot vote for a non-Muslim candidate.

Ahok has explained he didn't mean to insult the Quran.

A video posted on social media, which showed Ahok saying no one should manipulate verses from the Quran for political gains, "was edited by Buni Yani (a Facebook user and a university lecturer) in an attempt to show the governor discrediting a verse from the Islamic holy book during a meeting with local residents," Jakarta Globe reported earlier.

Ahok had been misquoted. The video makes it look as if the governor had said, "You've been lied to by the 51st verse of the (Quran's) Al-Maidah chapter," while what he had actually said, "You've been lied to by [people] misquoting the 51st verse of the Al-Maidah," the Globe said in an editorial.

While the majority of the people in Indonesia are known to be tolerant and moderate, there are several extremist Islamist groups in the country. According to the Human Rights Watch, more than 1,000 churches in the archipelago have been closed over the last decade due to pressure from such groups.

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