(CNSNews.com) – The world’s most populous Islamic country took another lurch backwards Tuesday when a court sentenced the capital city’s first Christian governor in half a century to two years’ imprisonment for “blasphemy.”
The sentence handed down by the North Jakarta District Court was even stiffer than the one requested by Indonesian state prosecutors, who asked for a suspended sentence for outgoing Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.
“Jakarta, Indonesia, had a rare and beautiful thing in their country – a Christian governor,” evangelical preacher Franklin Graham said in response to the trial.
The governor, he commented, “was known for his honest and capable governance, but Islam wants domination, and they wanted him politically out of the picture.”
Sentencing came four days after radical Islamists marched to the Supreme Court to demand a heavy sentence for Purnama. The governor’s detractors have been demanding his imprisonment – and even his execution – ever since a remark on the campaign trail last fall was interpreted by some Muslims as blasphemous.
The claims triggered massive street protests, and are widely thought responsible for Purnama’s defeat to a Muslim challenger in elections last month. The remainder of his term was to have ended in October, but he was taken into custody immediately and his deputy will serve out the term.
A State Department official late Tuesday said the administration opposes blasphemy laws universally.
“While we respect Indonesia’s democratic institutions, we uniformly oppose blasphemy laws anywhere in the world as they jeopardize fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of religion and expression,” the official said.
“We encourage Indonesian efforts to uphold the freedoms of religion and speech, which are important facets of its pluralistic democracy.”
Purnama, who says he will appeal, has denied the charges throughout.
Campaigning last September, he reportedly told voters that they were being lied to by people who were misquoting a verse from the Qur’an to back their argument that Muslims should not be ruled by non-Muslims. (Eighty-five percent of Jakarta’s residents are Muslims.)
His accusers claimed he had suggested it was the Qur’an itself that was wrong, although Purnama insists his target was not the Islamic scripture but those who misinterpreted it for political ends.
(The verse, Qur’an 5:51, reads in part, “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies.”)
The trial stoked tensions and fears in the country, and Tuesday’s sentencing in a heavily-guarded court was accompanied by nearby street demonstrations by the governor’s supporters – and by Islamists demanding an ever harsher sentence.
President Joko Widodo, an ally of the governor, called on Indonesians to respect the verdict, but also to respect the convict’s right to appeal and to “trust the ongoing legal process.” He also stressed that the government cannot interfere in court rulings.
Widodo was himself governor of Jakarta with Purnama as his deputy until he was elected president in 2014, a step that then elevated Purnama – a minority Christian and also a member of the minority ethnic Chinese community – to the governorship.
Writing on his Facebook page, Graham, president of the humanitarian organization Samaritan's Purse and son of evangelist Billy Graham, urged Christians to pray for Purnama, his family, and other Christians “facing this kind of persecution every day throughout the Islamic world.”
Graham is hosting a World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Washington this week, an event drawing hundreds of participants from some 130 countries.
Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to address the summit on Thursday.
Just last month – on the day after Purnama’s election defeat – Pence visited Indonesia, met with Widodo and praised the country.
“As the largest majority Muslim country, Indonesia’s tradition of modern Islam, frankly, is an inspiration to the world,” Pence said.
“In your nation, as in mine, religion unifies -- it doesn’t divide,” he added, “It gives us hope for a brighter future, and we are all grateful for the great inspiration that Indonesia provides for the world.
‘Questionable’ model of moderate Islamic democracy
Indonesia is the world’s fourth most-populous country and most populous Muslim-majority nation.
From 2016 to 2013, it was one of just a small handful of countries in the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to earn Freedom House’s ranking as a “free” democracy.
Since 2014, however, Indonesia slipped to “partly free” in the annual rankings, which are based on scores for political rights and civil liberties.
(Of the 57 OIC members, only five are now ranked “free,” 22 are “partly free” and 30 are “not free.”)
Indonesia’s official state ideology, “Pancasila,” entails the five principles of belief in God, national unity, just and civilized humanity, representative democracy and social justice.
Under that system, the state officially recognizes not just Islam but also Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
Religious freedom advocates have warned of a rise in religious extremism and a culture of intolerance in recent years, with churches being forcibly closed and religious minorities coming under attack.
Two significant mainstream Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, claim some 100 million followers between them, but other much smaller groups advocate a more radical stance. One of them, the Islamic Defenders Front, spearheaded the protests against Purnama.
“This verdict and the sentence imposed represent an outrageous miscarriage of justice,” said Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s East Asia team leader Benedict Rogers. “Indonesia’s ability to hold itself up as an example of a moderate, tolerant, Muslim-majority democracy is further threatened and is now very questionable,”
CSW called on Widodo to amend or repeal the blasphemy laws.