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People throng airport to welcome back controversial Indonesian cleric

JAKARTA: Thousands of supporters gathered at Jakarta's airport yesterday to welcome back a firebrand cleric and Islamist leader who went into exile in Saudi Arabia after facing charges over sending pornographic messages and insulting state ideology.

There were chaotic scenes at the airport as his supporters, dressed in white, paralysed the toll road, scrambling to get a glimpse of the cleric and trying to kiss his hand.

Some airlines were forced to reschedule flights.

"We really miss him because we know he really fights for Islam and the Indonesian nation," said Mr Abdul Sobur, 42, who was among the crowd.

"I hope Muslims can unite."

Habib Rizieq Shihab, who was jailed in 2008 on charges of inciting violence and who is head of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), became a figurehead for conservative Islam and a politically influential movement that helped bring down Jakarta's former Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as "Ahok", who in 2017 was jailed for insulting Islam.

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That year, the police filed a case against Habib Rizieq over insulting Indonesia's secular state ideology, Pancasila, and breaching pornography laws, after a purported steamy exchange with a supporter that included naked images of a woman circulated online.

The cleric left Indonesia in 2017 and the police dropped both cases a year later, but he remained in self-exile in Saudi Arabia until yesterday.

Another supporter, Ms Ima Sari Kartika, 39, said she was jubilant the cleric had returned home to the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

"I have been waiting for his presence among Indonesian Muslims for a long time because Indonesia is the largest Islamic country so there should be an imam who leads the people here," she said.

FPI attorney Aziz Yanuar said the supporters came from various regions to welcome Habib Rizieq home.

The group had also prepared a ceremony to celebrate his return at the FPI headquarters in Petamburan, Central Jakarta.

"It is like welcoming someone who has returned from the haj," said Mr Aziz. - REUTERS, JAKARTA POST

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