Supporters throng airport to welcome back controversial Indonesian cleric

Islamist leader Rizieq Shihab speaks to supporters gathered at the Jakarta International Airport on Nov 10, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Thousands of supporters gathered at Jakarta's airport on Tuesday (Nov 10) to welcome back Rizieq Shihab, a firebrand cleric and Islamist leader, who went into exile in Saudi Arabia after facing charges over sending pornographic messages and insulting state ideology.

There were chaotic scenes at the airport as his supporters, dressed in white, paralysed the toll road, scrambling to get a glimpse of the cleric and trying to kiss his hand.

Some airlines were forced to reschedule flights.

"We really miss him because we know he really fights for Islam and the Indonesian nation," said Mr Abdul Sobur, 42, who was among the crowd. "I hope Muslims can unite."

Rizieq, who was jailed in 2008 on charges of inciting violence and who is head of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), became a figurehead for conservative Islam and a politically influential movement that helped bring down Jakarta's former Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as "Ahok", who in 2017 was jailed for insulting Islam.

That year, police filed a case against Rizieq over insulting Indonesia's secular state ideology, Pancasila, and breaching pornography laws, after a purported steamy exchange with a supporter that included naked images of a woman was circulated online.

The cleric left Indonesia in 2017 and police dropped both cases a year later, but he had remained in self-exile in Saudi Arabia until Tuesday.

Another supporter, Ms Ima Sari Kartika, 39, said she was jubilant the cleric had returned home to the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

"I have been waiting for his presence among Indonesian Muslims for a long time because Indonesia is the largest Islamic country, so there should be an imam who leads the people here," she said.

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