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Jakarta on high alert as Muslim groups protest Christian leader

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Hard-line Islamic groups began gathering in the Indonesian capital Friday to call for the detention of Jakarta's Christian governor, who has been accused of blasphemy.

[JAKARTA] Hard-line Islamic groups began gathering in the Indonesian capital Friday to call for the detention of Jakarta's Christian governor, who has been accused of blasphemy.

President Joko Widodo put Jakarta on high alert and dispatched 22,000 soldiers and police to keep order, after a similar protest last month turned violent. Foreign embassies including the US warned its citizens of the potential for extremists to use the demonstration as cover to incite violence.

Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is locked in a three-way battle to retain his governorship in elections next year, has been accused of blasphemy for comments in which he warned that voters were being deceived by people trying to use Koranic verses to say that Muslims were not permitted to support a Christian leader. Authorities confirmed this week that the case would proceed to trial, possibly within weeks.

Mr Purnama, who has denied the charges, faces as many as five years in prison if convicted under Indonesia's blasphemy laws. Police have so far resisted calls to arrest Mr Purnama, although he has been banned from leaving the country. Observers have warned that the case risks emboldening extremists in Indonesia, which prides itself on its secularism, as well as being the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation.

Mr Purnama, 50, became Jakarta governor in 2014 after Mr Widodo, the city's previous leader, won the presidency. The two remain allied.

Mr Widodo, who has blamed unnamed "political actors" for the unrest, has gone into damage control since the scandal brought more than 100,000 people to the streets for the Nov 4 protest. He's made several public appearances with senior officials from the military, police and other party chiefs in recent weeks to show he's still in charge.

Until the blasphemy case erupted, Mr Purnama was the front-runner in a three-way race with Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and former education minister Anies Baswedan, a protege of Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi's 2014 presidential rival. The latest opinion now polls show Ahok trailing.

BLOOMBERG