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Imprisoned Christian Governor set for release in Indonesia

The former governor of Jakarta and Christian, Ahok, is due to be released early from prison tomorrow (24 January) after being sentenced in a politically-motivated attack during his re-election campaign.

In May 2017, the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaya Purnama – fondly known as Ahok – was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in jail. He is due to be released tomorrow.

In a letter to his supporters this week, Ahok asked people not to hold a parade to welcome him for the sake of public order, or to camp out in front of the prison and said, “I am very thankful to God for allowing me to spend time in prison.”

He also urged his supporters not to give up on politics, “The Presidential and Legislative Election will be held on 17 April 2019. I strongly urge all my fans not to abstain from voting. We need to uphold the four pillars of democracy, Pancasila (Indonesia’s ideology), Constitution, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Indonesia’s motto) and NKRI (Indonesia’s state form) by voting for political parties that uphold these pillars in Indonesia.”

Ahok, was the capital’s first Christian and ethnic minority governor since the 1960s. He was accused of 'desecrating' the Quran when he said in a speech that Islamic groups were misusing a verse in the Quran to discourage support for him. The verse is interpreted by some as prohibiting Muslims from living under the leadership of a non-Muslim.

Around 100,000 Muslim radicals took to the streets and demanded he be prosecuted. One protestor died, police officers were injured, and two motorcycles were burnt.

"A hardline group leader was caught saying the same remark as Ahok about the Quran. Quite predictably, it wasn't deemed as blasphemy,” said an Open Doors field researcher.

Despite still having a strong supporter base, Ahok lost the election. Ahok’s prosecutors then downgraded the blasphemy charges to 'expressing hostile feelings or hatred towards a particular group' [his political opponents]. Despite this he was given a harsh two-year sentence. The sentencing received widespread condemnation globally as politicians, academics and rights groups expressed their concern about religious pluralism in Indonesia.

Ahok was not elected as Jakarta's governor but rose to the position when the former governor, Joko Widodo, was elected president in 2014. During both their administrations, Jakarta has been reformed into a much better city. Flooding and heavy traffic, which it was famous for, has been effectively reduced, and the city's transportation improved. In this run for governorship, Ahok pledged to continue to improve Jakarta with ‘free access to health, education, better housing and transportation’. Ahok's battle against Jakarta's corrupted bureaucratic core has attracted many supporters who long for upright officials. Ahok was awarded Asia's Best Governor in 2015 by Globe Asia Magazine.  

In 2017, when Ahok was imprisoned, Indonesia was number 46 on the Open Doors World Watch List. It now sits at number 30. Although Indonesia’s constitution promotes religious freedom, Islamic extremist groups are becoming more influential in pushing for an Islamic nation. Some regions of Indonesia already operate under Islamic law (Sharia), which poses a threat to Christians and other religious minorities.  Believers from Muslim backgrounds often face persecution from their families and communities and are put under pressure to renounce their faith. Churches are hard to build; even if congregations manage to fulfil all the legal requirements, local authorities can still deny them permission. Children of Christians often face verbal abuse; they are called infidels and are sometimes made to sit at the back in class. While believers in Indonesia don’t usually face violent persecution, in 2018, 18 Christians were killed and many more wounded in a co-ordinated suicide bomb attack on three churches in the city of Surabaya.

Asia is the new hotbed of persecution for Christians according to the 2019 World Watch List. Figures show that persecution in Asia has risen sharply over the last five years with one in three Asian Christians now suffering high levels of persecution. In South East Asia there has been a worrying rise in Islamic extremism: suicide bombers in Indonesia attacked three churches in one day. Pockets of Islamic State affiliate groups in places like Mindanao in the Philippines and Aceh in Indonesia are gaining ground and expanding their territory.

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