Basuki Tjahaja Purnama apologizes for controversial remarks, defends against accusations of offending Muslims.
Jakarta’s Christian governor choked back tears on Tuesday as he gave an impassioned defense against charges of blasphemy, telling an Indonesian court he never intended to offend his Muslim countrymen.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama—the first Christian to govern the capital in more than 50 years—is standing trial accused of insulting the Quran, an offense that carries a five-year jail term.
The high-profile case has gripped national attention, and stoked fears of growing intolerance toward minorities in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. The governor has apologized for his controversial remarks, which angered Muslims across Indonesia and drew hundreds of thousands to the streets of Jakarta in protests larger than any seen in many years.
Facing court for the first time, the governor gave an emotionally charged defense against the charges, pausing several times to compose himself as he maintained his innocence. “I know I have to respect the holy verses of the Quran. I do not understand how I can be said to have offended Islam,” Purnama said, occasionally dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.
Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, ignited a firestorm of criticism in September when he quoted the Islamic holy text while campaigning ahead of elections for the Jakarta governorship. The governor accused his opponents of using a Quranic verse, which suggests Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders, in order to trick people into voting against him.
Purnama is running against two Muslim candidates in elections for city hall slated for February. Critics say the controversy is as much about politics as religion, as the governor’s foes whip up anger to reduce his support ahead of the hotly contested poll.
He had long been the favorite to win the election owing to the popularity of his no-nonsense style and determination to clean up Jakarta, a crowded, polluted metropolis of 10 million. But the scandal has eroded his chances of victory, with his opponents gaining ground since Purnama was named a suspect for blasphemy in November.
Prosecutor Ali Mukartono said the governor had “spoken a lie” and insulted Muslims, adding Indonesia’s top clerical council had declared his remarks blasphemous. But Purnama said close Muslim family friends had played a enormous mentorship role in his life, and the allegations he had offended their religion hurt him deeply.
“I am very sad. This accusation is the same as saying I have offended my adoptive parents and siblings, whom I love and they love me back,” he said, his voice cracking.
He also listed the many services he had provided for his Islamic constituents, including the construction of mosques, support for religious schools and donation of sacrificial cows on sacred days. A small band of his supporters kept vigil outside the court as a larger congregation of hardline Islamists chanted and held signs depicting Purnama in prison garb behind bars.
The courtroom was surrounded by police, with the proceedings being broadcast live on national television. The case has emboldened hardliners, analysts say, who have long opposed a Christian as governor and have used the blasphemy scandal to push their conservative agenda.
Rights groups want Indonesia’s archaic blasphemy laws overhauled, arguing they are exploited to persecute minorities.