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Christian Governor Fights Blasphemy Charge In Muslim-Majority Indonesia


And let's hear now about a trial that is gripping the Southeast Asian country of Indonesia. What is significant here is who is on trial and why in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. The accused is the first Christian to serve as the governor of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, and he is on trial for blasphemy. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports that this is a pretty troubling development in a country that promotes itself as the most moderate in the Islamic world.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Jakarta's governor is a busy guy. Even as he's standing trial, he's campaigning for re-election.


KUHN: We are on the campaign trail with the incumbent Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, as he winds his way through a low-income Jakarta neighborhood followed by throngs of residents. At this stage, he's basically just offering himself up so the residents can take selfies with him.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language).

KUHN: Basuki passes by a local mosque where an all-female percussion team offers him a warm welcome. Basuki is a triple minority. He's a Christian and he's from a subgroup of ethnic Han Chinese known as the Hakka. Most folks call him by his Chinese nickname, Ahok. Since becoming governor in 2014, he's cracked down on corruption, cleared slums and fought to improve public services. Peeking out from her storefront, Muntema, who goes by just one name, voices her approval of Ahok's performance.

MUNTEMA: (Through interpreter) I'm very grateful that when we get sick we no longer have to pay for health care. Also the river here used to flood when it rained. But now that doesn't happen since the governor sent workers to dredge it.

KUHN: With elections this month, Ahok enjoys a sizable lead in the polls. The only wrinkle is the fact that he's on trial for blasphemy. The charges stem from remarks Ahok made in September. He told Muslim voters not to be fooled by politicians who tell them they can only vote for Muslims. Since then, hard-liners have organized three mass rallies against Ahok.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

KUHN: Outside the courthouse, protesters - many wearing robes, turbans and headscarves - call for Ahok's arrest. Helmy, who uses just one name, is selling Islamic flags.

HELMY: (Through interpreter) God said do not vote for someone outside your group to become your leader. So it is forbidden for us to vote for a non-Muslim.

BASUKI TJAHAJA PURNAMA: They want to develop another ideology here in this country.

KUHN: That's Ahok himself speaking to me on his lunch break. He points out that Indonesia was created as a secular republic. It's national motto, which would sound familiar to Americans, is unity in diversity. But he says his critics have other ideas.

PURNAMA: They want to force the Islamic law, implement for this country. So this mean you want to dig our foundation again and change another foundation. How come?

KUHN: Ahok says that he's truly honored that his trial is putting these issues before the Indonesian public.

PURNAMA: And I am happy history choose me for this position. You couldn't buy it.

KUHN: Ahok says his ultimate goal is to offer Indonesians a sort of civics lesson.

PURNAMA: How to educate the people to vote for the clean, transparent and professional politician.

KUHN: Their supporters see Ahok and President Joko Widodo as this new breed of politician. And some analysts see Ahok's trial as the revenge of the old breed.

ANDREAS HARSONO: This is the deep state of Indonesia reacting to a outsider president.

KUHN: That's Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Jakarta. By deep state, Harsono means an alliance of the military, hard-line Muslim organizations, paramilitary groups and government bureaucrats. The deep state he says exists beneath the institutions of Indonesia's democracy.

HARSONO: This is the deep state showing their power, their stubbornness, their deep roots.

KUHN: The verdict in Ahok's trial is likely to come sometime after this month's election. So even if he wins that election, he still faces a maximum five-year jail term if convicted of blasphemy. Whether Ahok could then serve out his term as governor is unclear. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.


Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.