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Jakarta Christian governor trial tests Indonesia's religious freedom (+video)

Jakarta's first Christian governor is on trial for blasphemy over his previous remarks regarding the Quran, an accusation some say is politically motivated.

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    Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as 'Ahok,' (c.) waves at the media during his trial hearing at North Jakarta District Court in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Ahok sobbed in court Tuesday on the first day of his blasphemy trial as he recalled the role of Muslim godparents in his childhood and said he would never intentionally insult Islam.
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The Christian governor of Jakarta, capital of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, sat through an emotional hearing on Tuesday as he faced charges of insulting Islam.

Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, drew condemnation from conservative Islamists for criticizing political opponents' use of a Quranic verse to suggest that Muslims should not vote for non-Muslim leaders. He was accused of blasphemy, with tens of thousands of Indonesians marching in protest this fall.

“I had no intention of insulting Muslims and insulting the clergy,” Ahok said during the trial, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

While Indonesia is a young, multicultural democracy often touted as a model for religious freedom in a diverse, yet Muslim-majority society, it has over the past decade seen a rise in conflicts between different religious groups and a spread of more conservative views.

“The manipulation of race and religion, such as the blasphemy charge against Ahok, in a political campaign to crush an opponent, breaks the long-held taboo against using these issues brazenly to gain political advantage,” Douglas Ramage, a political analyst in Jakarta, told The New York Times.

The trial, which is scheduled to resume on Dec. 20, was preceded by major demonstrations in Jakarta this fall calling for Ahok's ouster. His lawyers argue that the prosecution was “irregular” and “heavily influenced” by public pressure, as reported by the Jakarta Post.

The Ahok case arrives amid other tests of religious tolerance, with offenses carried out by both Muslims and Christians. An Islamist group shut down a Christmas celebration in Bandung, West Java, last week by claiming that they did not have a permit, as Voice of America reports. On the other end, a Christian group in East Nusa Tenggara led police to arrest nine Muslim men whom they charged with lacking proper documentation for conducting services in the predominantly Catholic province.

“What happened in Bandung is not new,” Bonar Tigor Naipospos, the deputy chairman of the Setara Institute, a human rights organization, told Voice of America. “In the years since [former President] Suharto’s fall, intolerant groups have proliferated across Indonesia.... They’re always pretty smart about playing up certain issues to gain public support – like Christmas.”

In 2015, a 33 percent increase in incidents of religion-related violence in Indonesia, according to report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which cited statistics from Setara Institute. Among the most populous countries in the world – Indonesia currently ranks fourth – Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey have the highest overall restrictions on religion, according to a June report from Pew Research Center. 

"The hardliners' take on what religious freedom [is] ... it's one that rejects the rights of anybody who says something that may deviate from a conservative understanding from Islamic orthodoxy," Robert Hefner, a professor at Boston University who studies Muslim societies, told The Christian Science Monitor in November. 

The rise of more vocal hardline-views began after former President Suharto’s ouster, following his 1980s push for Indonesia to become a more secular nation, forged against the backdrop of extremism-fueled violence. Since then, however, groups with more conservative ideologies have gained influence, especially against Christians, Shiite Muslims, and followers of Ahmadiyah, an Islamic religious movement. The government has also passed laws to complicate the process of building places of worship, and has forbidden Ahmadis from proselytizing, as reported by The Economist.

Complicating matters is Indonesia’s geography, spread out over strings of islands, where local governments sometimes impose religious restrictions that have, in turn, shut down houses of worship, or prompted attacks.

Some officials have spoken out against the attacks and rise of religious hardliners, with the most prominent Muslim groups vocally condemning actions of some extremist groups such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI). But the laws in place and weak local regulations, some say, are still contributing to religious intolerance.

Current Indonesian President Joko Widodo has emphasized the importance of understanding, tolerance, and dialogue, according to the BBC, declaring that striking that balance has long been part of Indonesia's history as a multicultural society.

“Apart from Muslims, Indonesia is also home to Christians, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians,” Mr. Widodo said last week at the Bali Democracy Forum.  “The peace values are upheld by all religious adherents in Indonesia.”

 
 
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