World

Jokowi gathers clerics amid sectarian tension

Indonesian President holds meeting days after arrests over planned rallies

JAKARTA Indonesian President Joko Widodo has met Muslim clerics from across the country at the state palace amid allegations that hardline Islamic groups are planning large rallies in five cities as part of a plot to overthrow him.

The meeting on Tuesday took place just days after police arrested five alleged instigators of the latest sectarian rally against the capital's Christian governor, Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, last Friday.

The five suspects planned to hold large rallies in five major cities sometime between April 20 - a day after the Jakarta election run-off - and the beginning of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan on May 26, said a Jakarta police spokesman on Tuesday.

Tuesday's meeting was seen as an attempt by Mr Joko, popularly known as Jokowi, to gain support from 20 Muslim clerics to prevent simmering sectarianism that has gripped Jakarta in recent months from spreading elsewhere.

Mr Joko said: "We rely on ulamas (clerics) to maintain calmness and to cool down the situation in cities and regencies of the country so that we always maintain a peaceful state of affairs."

The Jakarta election has become a lighting rod for Islamic hardliners who hold increasing sway in the traditionally-pluralistic society.

Mr Basuki, who is also ethnic Chinese, is on trial this week for blasphemy in a case that has divided Jakarta's Muslim community.

SECULAR

But he won the first round of elections in February and easily beat the most conservative candidates - a sign that many still value secular leadership.

Mr Joko and Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, have sided with Mr Basuki against hardliners supporting his prosecution.

Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, who sat in on Tuesday's meeting, said the clerics had not specifically discussed sectarian issues plaguing the Jakarta election, as they were focused on maintaining harmony across the country.

He said: "They told the President that religious harmony should not only be established through the implementation of law and human rights principles, but what is the most important thing is that we use empathy to build religious harmony."

Friday's arrests marked the second time police had linked a sectarian rally in Jakarta to a plot to oust Mr Joko.

Last December, police arrested a number of people accused of trying to use a rally as a means to depose the president.

The five men arrested last Friday include Muhammad Al Khaththath, secretary-general of hardline group Forum of Muslims.

The other four suspects, identified as Diko Nugraha, Andre, Irwansyah and Zainuddin Arsyad, are believed to be senior members of Muslim organisations. - JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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