JAKARTA: Tens of thousands of Muslim hardliners called for Jakarta's Christian governor to be prosecuted for blasphemy in a massive demonstration in the Indonesian capital Friday, sparking fears of violence and putting authorities on alert. A sea of protesters wearing white Islamic robes swarmed the city's largest mosque for Friday prayers before taking to the streets in a huge show of force against governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is accused of insulting Islam.
The protest was triggered by accusations that Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, insulted Islam by criticising opponents who used Koranic references to attack him ahead of an election in February. Purnama apologised for the remarks, but his opponents have built a groundswell of support calling for his arrest and incarceration under Indonesia's tough blasphemy laws.
"It's no wonder people arise. Why when it comes to Ahok is the law not upheld?" deputy house speaker Fahri Hamzah, a prominent politician from an Islamic political party, told demonstrators Friday. Anger at Purnama, Jakarta's second Christian governor and the first from the country's ethnic Chinese community, spread beyond the capital, with solidarity marches also held across Java and in cities as far away as Makassar in Indonesia's east.
Hardliners have called for his death as Friday's turnout -- estimated by police at 50,000 -- eclipsed a similar protest last month that drew 10,000 chanting demonstrators to city hall. Police spokesman Boy Rafli Amar told AFP there were no reports of violence so far, declaring the rally "peaceful". But police took no chances in the lead up, deploying 18,000 officers amid fears that radical elements could infiltrate the march.
The military warned it was ready to back police if things turned ugly, with helicopters flying low over the city and extra soldiers stationed at key government buildings reinforced with razor wire and armoured vehicles. Some foreign embassies warned their citizens to steer clear of the demonstration. President Joko Widodo met this week with religious and political leaders to issue a unified call against violence while police sought to ease tensions by holding prayer sessions and broadcasting calls for peace on social media.
Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi, pressed on with business Friday despite the much-hyped protest, meeting with cabinet ministers and inspecting a train project, his spokesman Johan Budi said. Indonesia is home to the world's biggest Muslim population, where a vast majority practise a moderate form of Islam. But the governor stoked religious tensions in September when he told a crowd they'd been "deceived" by his opponents who had used a Koranic verse to try to put them off voting for a Christian.
"Our holy book has been insulted so I felt moved to join," protester Zulfikar, who like many Indonesians goes by just one name, told AFP. "Ahok must be prosecuted." The governor -- known for his tough-talking style -- is hugely popular in other quarters for his determination to clean up Jakarta, an overcrowded, disorganised and polluted metropolis.
Purnama became Jakarta governor in November 2014, but was not elected to the post. He was deputy governor and automatically became governor after incumbent Widodo was elected Indonesian president. (AFP)