Jakarta: Tens of thousands of Muslims poured into central Jakarta on Friday to protest against the city’s governor, a Christian accused of insulting the Quran, fuelling tension that has alarmed Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
Widodo has blamed “political actors” for exploiting the popular fury over governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama to destabilise his government. Underlining those concerns, police announced on Friday that 10 people had been detained for suspected treason.
A sea of white-clad protesters built up around the National Monument and, with no more room there, the roads around filled up with protesters chanting, praying and carrying banners demanding that Purnama be jailed.
Police officials estimated the crowd at least 150,000, including many who travelled to Jakarta from towns and cities across the island of Java and beyond.
Widodo addressed the rally after Friday prayers and praised the peaceful protest, before urging the crowd to leave safely.
“Thank you and safe travels on your return from where you came from. God bless you,” said Widodo, who was flanked by ministers and Islamic leaders.
As the president was helped down from the stage, some in the crowd joined the head of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front in chanting slogans calling for the crushing of Purnama.
Under rainy skies, the crowd later started to disperse.
National news agency Antara said 22,000 police personnel were deployed to avoid a repeat of violence that flared during a protest led by hardline Islamists last month when more than 100 people were injured in clashes with police.
A health care volunteer at the protest said Widodo had earned their respect by joining the rally after some had criticised him for going to inspect an airport during the November 4 rally.
“This sends a message that he is with the people and that makes people happy, calm,” said Maya Sandra, 50.
Purnama, a long-time ally of the president, is running for re-election in February against two Muslim candidates.
The contest has generated high political tension for weeks, with rumours of plots to undermine Widodo and scupper his chances of winning a second term in 2019.
Police spokesman Rikwanto told a news conference that 10 people he identified only by their initials had been detained before dawn, citing articles of the criminal code that cover conspiracy and acts of treason. Two of them were charged under the law of information technology for hate speech.
“They have now been detained and are undergoing investigation,” said Rikwanto, who goes by only one name.
Fears for political stability
Indonesia has the world’s biggest Muslim population but recognises six religions and is home to dozens of ethnic groups, some of which follow traditional beliefs.
Purnama is being investigated over comments he made about his opponents’ use of the Quran in campaigning. He denies wrongdoing but has apologised for the remarks.
Police on Thursday handed over a dossier from their investigation of his comments to prosecutors, who are expected to take the case of alleged blasphemy to court in coming weeks.
“This gathering is an expression of Muslims being united as one people, one body,” said Salist Nursolikhah, 49, who flew into Jakarta from the city of Yogjakarta to join the rally.
“It’s not against a particular person because of his ethnicity. We are only against his action,” she said.
Simmering religious and ethnic tension last month prompted Widodo to rally top military, political and religious figures in a sign of unity amid fears of attempts to undermine the stability of his government.
Purnama is popular with many for pushing through tough reforms to modernise the traffic-plagued capital.
But opinion polls have shown him slipping into second place in the race for re-election as governor, a position that Widodo himself used as a stepping-stone to the presidency.