Indonesia: Controversial Cleric Apologizes over Gatherings after Public Outcry

Ronna Nirmala
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Indonesia: Controversial Cleric Apologizes over Gatherings after Public Outcry Rizieq Shihab (left), leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), greets supporters at the organization’s headquarters in Jakarta, following his return from Saudi Arabia, Nov. 10, 2020.

A hardline Indonesian Muslim cleric on Wednesday apologized for leading gatherings that flouted coronavirus restrictions after his return from Saudi Arabia last month.

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab’s apology came as police sought to question him in connection with his role in the COVID-19 health protocol violations, after he failed to answer an earlier summons, citing exhaustion.

Thousands of Rizieq's supporters thronged Soekarno-Hatta International Airport on Nov. 10 to welcome his arrival in Indonesia after spending three years in Saudi Arabia.

In the same week, Rizieq held at least three religious gatherings attended by thousands of people in Jakarta and neighboring West Java, prompting public criticism and calls for authorities to take action against the violations of social distancing rules.

"I apologize for the disturbances, discomfort and offence caused by the gatherings. It got out of hand because of the enthusiasm of the people,” Rizieq said in a live YouTube broadcast.

The Health Ministry said on Nov. 22 that 80 coronavirus cases had been linked to the gatherings.

Outcry over the gatherings prompted the sackings of Jakarta and West Java police chiefs and four other municipal officials for their failure to stop the events.

Rizieq, founder of the anti-vice group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), added in his broadcast on Wednesday that he had cancelled all plans to attend public events.

"Together we follow health protocols and avoid crowds, any crowds, including elections. We support the goal to get out of this pandemic as soon as possible,” he said.

Millions of Indonesians will go to the polls on Dec. 9 to elect governors, mayors and regents in simultaneous local elections.


Rizieq went to Saudi Arabia after police called him in for questioning about complaints that he sent lewd images to a woman or insulted Pancasila, the Indonesian state philosophy. He stayed in Saudi Arabia after police issued arrest warrants against him on these charges.

The cleric previously said police had targeted him for criticizing the government, while authorities said they had evidence to support their charges.

Rizieq insisted that he could not return to Indonesia after the charges against him were dropped in 2018, saying authorities had blocked his return. The government denied this accusation last week.

Also last week, Rizieq was treated for exhaustion in a hospital in Bogor, near Jakarta, and underwent a COVID-19 swab test. The hospital has not made public the result, citing patient privacy.

Rizieq said he would self-quarantine, though he denied contracting COVID-19.

Indonesia recorded 5,533 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the total to 549,508. The virus-related death toll rose by 118 to 17,199.

New summons

On Wednesday, police delivered a summons to Rizieq's residence in Central Jakarta, after he failed to show up earlier for questioning over the gatherings.

Jakarta police spokesman Yusri Yunus said investigators sought to question Rizieq on Thursday.

"Hopefully he can attend this time,” Yusri told BenarNews, adding that the investigation would continue despite Rizieq’s apology.

Rizieq on Wednesday attended a virtual gathering marking the anniversary of the massive protest four years ago against Jakarta’s then-governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, over remarks citing the Quran that some Muslims said were blasphemous. 

The 212 Alumni Association, named after the date of the protest, had planned to stage a rally at the National Monument square to mark the event, but authorities refused to issue a permit.

In 2017, a court sentenced Ahok, a Christian, to two years in prison for blasphemy for the offending remarks.

Ahok lost the Jakarta gubernatorial election that year to former Education Minister Anies Baswedan, who courted support from conservative Muslim groups despite his liberal credentials.

Governor Anies said Tuesday that he had tested positive for COVID-19, days after his deputy Ahmad Riza Patria announced he had contracted the disease.

"The results came out early Tuesday morning and showed I was positive for COVID-19," he said in a video statement, adding that he had no symptoms as yet. He urged those who had been around him recently to get tested and self-isolate.

A spike in new cases prompted the government to cut the year-end holiday – previously scheduled from Dec. 24 through Jan. 1 – by three days, to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Minister for Human Development and Culture Muhadjir Effendy said Tuesday.

The spokesman for Indonesia’s COVID-19 task force, Wiku Adisasmito, blamed the public’s lack of observance of health guidelines for the increase in cases.

"A lot of people get together and do not keep their distance. People are also starting to be careless and not use masks or wash their hands," he told reporters on Tuesday.


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