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Indonesian cleric's mass rallies anger Jokowi amid COVID crisis

Two police chiefs fired for not 'upholding health protocols' at Shihab events

Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Indonesian hardline Islamic Defenders Front, gestures to supporters as he arrives to inaugurate a mosque in Bogor on Friday.    © AFP/Jiji

JAKARTA -- Just a week after returning from exile in Saudi Arabia, an Indonesian Islamist leader is already creating a stir by holding mass gatherings of Muslims despite the country's coronavirus crisis.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has hit out at the events featuring Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, and two senior police officials have been dismissed for allowing the rallies to take place.

TV and social media footage show zero physical distancing and people removing masks during the events, including the wedding of one of Shihab's daughters, that attracted thousands of his followers in Jakarta and Bogor, a city about two hours drive south of the capital.

Shihab said Saturday that he and other leaders of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, are planning to nationwide tour to hold tabligh akbar (large-scale sermons) to garner support for what he calls a "moral revolution."

He said that criminalization of ulema (bodies of Muslim scholars) by the Widodo administration were a major moral problem.

"Do not intercept our tabligh akbar. Do not stand in our way for consolidation... we will not tolerate anyone attempting to thwart gatherings of the Muslim people," Shihab said in one fiery sermon early Saturday.

National Police spokesman Argo Yuwono announced Monday that the chiefs of Jakarta and West Java Police had been removed over failures to "uphold health protocols" in regards to Shihab's mass gatherings.

The police made the announcement after a cabinet meeting led by Widodo at which the president said people's safety is "the highest law."

"Do not let the hard work of doctors, nurses, medical workers and paramedics come to waste because the government fails to take firm action against activities that violate health protocols and existing regulations," Widodo said.

Indonesian Military (TNI) Commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto issued a strong televised address on Saturday night, reportedly in response to Shihab's criticism of sanctions against a TNI soldier who posted a video to welcome Shihab back to Indonesia. Shihab, before a crowd of followers, accused the TNI of favoring wealthy Chinese Indonesians over ulema.

"Do not let our unity disappear [due to] provocation and ambitions concealed under some identities," Tjahjanto said. "We will not let even a single enemy do things to threaten and disturb Indonesia's dignified aspirations. Whoever tries to disturb the nation's unity will face TNI."

Shihab and the FPI were reportedly slapped with fines of 50 million rupiah (about $3,500).

Indonesia has been struggling to control the pandemic, with local epidemiologists repeatedly criticizing the government for favoring premature economic re-openings over health concerns. Daily cases reached a new high last Friday, and as of Monday, the country had reported a total of 470,648 cases with 15,296 deaths -- the second highest in Asia after India.

Epidemiologists have previously warned of surges stemming from the many rallies held in protest against the controversial omnibus law passed by parliament in early October, and ahead of local elections next month in half of Indonesia's more than 500 administrative regions. The Shihab gatherings are adding to concerns.

Yuwono said investigators will question a number of other people related to the health protocol violations, including Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan.

Baswedan has been criticized for allowing the Shihab gatherings to take place while the rest of Jakarta remains under partial lockdown -- offices and commercial centers are only allowed to operate at half capacity.

In late 2016, Shihab played an instrumental role in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Muslims to protest against the then Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama, for allegedly insulting the Quran. Ahok, a close ally of Widodo, lost the election and was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy in May 2017. Baswedan, who was backed by Islamists and the opposition, won the governor post.

Around the same time, Shihab was named a suspect in several cases, including claims he insulted Indonesia's founding principles of Pancasila, and alleged sexting and violation of the country's anti-porn law.

Shihab stayed on in Saudi Arabia after going on a pilgrimage to Mecca in April 2017, but became able to return last week after police reportedly ended investigations against him and cleared him of charges .

Additional reporting by Bobby Nugroho

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