JAKARTA — Thousands of Indonesians on Wednesday joined nationwide interfaith rallies organized by the military in an attempt to demonstrate national unity as religious and racial tensions divide the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Police estimated that 30,000 people attended a rally at the national monument in Jakarta, the capital, but said half of them were either from the military or police. Rallies were also held in other big cities.
Security forces are bracing for a second massive protest by conservatives Muslims in Jakarta on Friday against the city’s minority Christian governor, who is being prosecuted for alleged blasphemy. The first protest, which drew more than 100,000 people on Nov. 4, turned violent, with one person killed and dozens injured after hard-liners clashed with police.
Organizers of Wednesday’s rallies, led by the military chief, Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, also invited students and leaders of the six religions recognized in Indonesia. Groups of people wearing headbands in the red and white colors of the Indonesian flag prayed together and soldiers sang patriotic songs.
“Keeping Indonesia unified is our No. 1 obligation,” Nurmantyo told the cheering crowd in Jakarta. “We are gathered today across the nation to show that is true. We are united in the Republic of Indonesia. We are ready to defend our unity of diversity as patriots of the nation.”
The national police chief, Gen. Tito Karnavian, was also at the rally.
Jakarta’s governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, is the first ethnic Chinese to hold the position and the first Christian in half a century. He is an ally of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, and the accusation of blasphemy has animated their political opponents, including hard-liners who have used the issue to seize a national stage for their extreme agenda, which includes Shariah law.
The Nov. 4 violence forced Jokowi to cancel an official visit to Australia. Since then, he has spent much of his time shoring up his support with mainstream Muslim groups and political and military leaders.
Ahok’s blasphemy case took a step forward Wednesday, with the Office of the State Prosecutor announcing that the police dossier on the case had met the requirements for it to go to trial. The offense is punishable by up to five years in prison.
However, hard-line Muslim groups continue to demand that Ahok be arrested. He is campaigning for a second term as Jakarta governor in elections due in February.
Indonesian authorities have said they believe Friday’s protest could be a guise for treasonous acts and have tried to discourage organizers from proceeding with it.
After meetings early this week between police and Rizieq Shihab, a firebrand leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, as well as Indonesia’s major Islamic organizations, a deal was announced that Friday’s protest would be confined to the National Monument area and would consist only of prayers, chanting in praise of God and peaceful sermons.
Story: Niniek Karmini