Thousands of Indonesians have joined nationwide interfaith rallies organised 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 conservative 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 November 4, turned violent, with one person killed and dozens injured after hardliners clashed with police.
Organisers of Wednesday’s rallies, led by the military chief, General Gatot Nurmantyo, also invited students and leaders of the six religions recognised in Indonesia.
Groups of people wearing headbands in the red and white colours of the Indonesian flag prayed together and soldiers sang patriotic songs.
“Keeping Indonesia unified is our number one obligation. We are gathered today across the nation to show that is true,” General Nurmantyo told the cheering crowd in Jakarta.
Ahok blasphemy trial a step closer
Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, is the first ethnic Chinese to hold the position and the first Christian in half a century.
He is an ally of President Joko Widodo, and the accusation of blasphemy has animated their political opponents, including hardliners who have used the issue to seize a national stage for more extreme agenda, including Sharia law.
The November 4 violence forced Mr Widodo 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 on 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, hardline 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 organisers 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 organisations, 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.
Indonesian military hold up bands signify unity in the nation