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Christian Governor's Trial Tests Religious Tolerance in Indonesia


The blasphemy trial of a Christian governor in the world's largest Muslim nation resumes next week. The case is being seen as a test of Indonesia's commitment to religious tolerance.

It stems from Basuki Purnama's comments about the misinterpretation of the Koran. The Jakarta governor, also known by his nickname Ahok, said he never intended to offend Muslims or Islam.  

"I never had intention of insulting Muslims and insulting the clergy. On that basis, I plead with the judges to consider my exception plea," said Purnama.

The blasphemy accusations followed statements made by Purnama while campaigning several months ago. If found guilty, he could spend five years in prison.

Purnama is Jakarta's first ethnic Chinese governor and first non-Muslim to serve in the office in more than half a century. He previously served as deputy governor, and in 2014 became governor after Joko Widodo won the presidency.

CBN Indonesia Director Mark McClendon told us Purnama isn't your typical politician.

"He is a very transparent man, a very open, very honest man. He says what he thinks; he's being forthright and people love that about him, " explained McClendon.

McClendon says Purnama has gained respect by stamping out corruption and could be freely elected as governor next year.

"Over the last three years of him being vice governor and then governor, people have felt a dramatic change come over this city, a dramatic change in governance. "

Like his predecessor, Purnama could use the office as a stepping stone to the presidency.

That is why some people think the charges against Purnama are political: Militant Muslims do not want a Christian president governing them.

A September campaign appearance led to the blasphemy charges. At that time Purnama said his opponents were lying by saying the Koran prohibits voters from supporting non-Muslims.

McClendon says there were no complaints voiced from the public at the event.

"Nobody who was there filed a police report. It was somebody else later on. So, no, there was no blasphemy. He was just saying 'don't let people use the scriptures of the Koran to try to convince you not to vote for me.'"

Outside the Jakarta courthouse, militant Muslims are demanding conviction while Purnama's supporters defend the Christian leader's innocence.
"He (Purnama) never wants to insult any other religion. He wouldn't tolerate any action against his country and his people," insisted a Purnama supporter named Timothias.

Some fear the trial signals a rapidly growing Islamic militancy in the country of 250 million. Christians represent less than 10 percent of the population here.

According to Indonesia's constitution, freedom of religion is well-protected nationwide. But militant Muslim groups often take violent and legal action against Christians and churches.

Purnama's blasphemy trial resumes next Tuesday and could last beyond the February election. If elected, he would continue as governor unless convicted of the blasphemy charges.

How can Christians help? McClendon says they need to pray for Indonesia, the country's president, and Purnama.

"Pray for Ahok (Purnama) to be able to continue to share his heart and pray for the political elite of the country--especially Jokowi (President Widodo) so he will have wisdom through all of this process, so that this trial cannot be politicized and can't  be managed or manipulated by the loud, noisy minority radical Muslim minority and that true justice will be done," he said.

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