JAKARTA (Reuters) - Several hundred Indonesians rallied in Jakarta on Sunday demanding that the president do more to protect freedom of religion and to punish hardline Muslim groups which have attacked minority faiths.
The protest reflects growing public alarm over recent attacks on churches, Christian prayer gatherings, and on mosques used by the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect that some Muslims deem heretical.
Such attacks have hurt Indonesia's reputation for religious tolerance, and could potentially threaten the status of Southeast Asia's biggest and most-populous economy as an attractive investment destination, in turn derailing growth and development.
Indonesia is officially secular and recognises six main faiths -- Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism -- of which Islam is the most widespread, accounting for about 85 percent of the population and making Indonesia the world's most populous Muslim country.
In the past, attacks on minority religions in other parts of the country have led to wider outbreaks of violence, for example in the aftermath of President Suharto's ouster in 1998.
Several of the recent attacks have involved members of Muslim gangs such as the Islamic Defenders Front or FPI, a hardline group whose members are considered as little more than thugs and racketeers because of their suspected links to the police and use of intimidation and violence.
Many Indonesians were outraged when Jakarta's governor, Fauzi Bowo, and the head of the Jakarta police, attended the FPI's 12th anniversary celebration recently -- a move seen as an official endorsement of the group's vigilantism.
On Sunday, about 500 people, many carrying red-and-white Indonesian flags and red ribbon arm bands, chanted "freedom of worship, freedom for all religions," and sang religious songs as they rallied around the National Monument in Jakarta.
"We've been patient enough over these recent incidents of violence and brutality, even against women and children. We have reported these criminal acts to the police, and we've seen no firm response against the attackers," said Saor Siagian, spokesman of The Forum for Religious Freedom Solidarity.
"If this escalates it could potentially lead to a more dangerous situation and poses a real threat to this nation. So far, the president hasn't taken any firm action."
The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace last month reported an increase in the number of attacks by "intolerant groups", citing forced closures of churches, the withholding of building permits for churches, and torching of church buildings.
Many of the attacks have taken place in the areas around the capital Jakarta, including Bekasi, Bogor and Tangerang, which have become strongholds for hardline groups.
These areas increasingly support sharia law and want it to be compulsory for women to wear the headscarf, according to a recent survey by Roy Morgan, whereas nationwide support for sharia law has declined over the past nine months.
"It is easy for Muslims to build a place of worship, while the others find it difficult to get a permit from the government," said Faisal Rahman, a Muslim who joined the protest.
"Islam and the prophet's teachings show that all religions should be treated equally. This is not an Islamic nation. People should be able to worship freely."
(Writing by Sara Webb; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
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