Updated at 3:16 a.m. ET on 2017-02-12
Up to 100,000 people converged on Indonesia’s national mosque Saturday for mass prayers ahead of gubernatorial polls set for next week, with Islamic leaders calling on congregants to elect a Muslim over a Chinese-Christian incumbent as Jakarta’s next governor.
The worshipers streamed into the Istiqlal Mosque in central Jakarta from as far away as Sumatra island in the west of predominantly Muslim Indonesia, despite heavy rain and a large presence by police and military personnel who were deployed to keep the event orderly.
“The people have to vote for Muslim leaders,” Rosyid Abdullah of the Forum Umat Islam (FUI), a conservative religious group that initiated the mass prayers, told the crowd, referring to polls coming up Wednesday in Jakarta and other municipalities and provinces nationwide.
“Islam has to really revive, we must win the battleground,” Rosyid said.
The event was broadcast live on iNews TV, a private Indonesian channel, and featured sermons and appearances by Muslim clerics and politicians.
"On Feb. 15, we are happy to vote for a Muslim leader," another speaker, Maulana Kamal Yusuf said in his speech, according to Reuters.
"Jakarta will be led by a Muslim leader who submits to the will of Allah," he added. "Jakarta will be a religious city."
Fellow cleric Muhammad Ma’shum who leads the Al Ishlah Islamic boarding school in East Java, issued a warning.
“We will fight until the last drop of our blood” if a court acquits Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian and member of Indonesia’s small ethnic Chinese minority, of blasphemy charges, Ma’shum said in remarks broadcast on iNews TV.
Muslims are peaceful but they will not stay calm if irked, he added.
Ahok went on trial during his electoral campaign for allegedly insulting Islam when he quoted a passage from the Quran at a public event in September, in a way that was seen as defamatory to the religion. He is still standing trial, although he resumed his duties as Jakarta governor later on Saturday after spending a few months on the campaign trail. He is seeking election to his first full term in office, and became governor of Indonesia's largest city in 2014.
‘We love pluralism’: FPI leader
The prayers in the seven-story mosque, which can accommodate 200,000 people, began before dawn, and went into the afternoon on the last official day of campaigning by the three candidates running for Wednesday’s gubernatorial polls in Jakarta.
According to electoral rules, candidates are required to observe a three-day “quiet period” during which they must stop campaigning.
The Jakarta race is one of 101 gubernatorial, mayoral and other polls that will take place across Indonesia on Feb. 15, but it has gotten the most attention because of the controversy surrounding Ahok.
Before Saturday’s mass prayers, Muslim groups led by the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) staged three huge rallies in Jakarta in recent months, at which protestors demanded that Ahok be prosecuted for his alleged anti-Muslim comments.
The leader of the FPI, cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, himself is under suspicion by police of having committed blasphemy by allegedly denigrating Indonesia’s founding philosophy of Pancasila. It rests on five pillars, including the principal of national unity.
The firebrand leader is facing criminal complaints that he and his group committed several cases of hate speech.
On Saturday, Rizieq addressed the gathering inside the mosque. He called on the government not to interpret the event as treason or going against the fabric of the nation’s religious and ethnic diversity, as framed by Pancasila.
“We love pluralism, we love diversity, we are not an enemy of the state,” Rizieq said in his sermon.
Before he arrived, the two men challenging Ahok, who are both Muslim, took part in morning prayers and then left. Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono and Anies Rasyid Baswedan came with their respective running mates, Sylviana Murni and Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno.
Ahok’s running mate, Djarot Syaiful Hidayat, who is a Muslim, did not attend the prayers.
Tens of thousands
According to Senior Commissioner Raden Prabowo Argo Yuwono, a spokesman for Jakarta police, as many as 100,000 people gathered for Saturday’s services at the Istiqlal Mosque.
“The crowd was dispersed by 5 p.m. and the situation around the mosque is back to normal,” Raden told BenarNews.
Compared with one of the previous anti-Ahok events that ended in riots on the night of Nov. 4, Saturday’s mass prayer was largely peaceful.
But reports said that a group in the huge crowd had intimidated two journalists working for Metro TV and Global TV, and a crew from Kompas TV was barred from the mosque. This prompted a complaint from the Indonesian Television Journalist Association.
The Istiqlal Mosque is located just across Banteng Barat Jalan (Street) from the Jakarta Cathedral. On Saturday others in the huge crowd of the Muslim faithful were seen escorting a Catholic bride and groom, who were trying to make their way past the throng and into the church.
A video clip showing Muslims assisting the couple and shouting out well wishes to the soon-to-be newlyweds went viral after being posted online.