Pence praises moderate Islam in Indonesia in bid to heal divisions

US Vice President Mike Pence, left, is greeted by his Indonesian counterpart Jusuf Kalla during their meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia. (AP)
Updated 20 April 2017
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Pence praises moderate Islam in Indonesia in bid to heal divisions

JAKARTA: US Vice President Mike Pence Thursday praised Indonesia’s moderate form of Islam as “an inspiration” at the start of a visit to the Muslim-majority country seen as a bid by his administration to heal divisions with the Islamic world.
It came ahead of a visit by Pence to the largest mosque in Indonesia, which has the world’s biggest Muslim population, where he will hold a multi-faith dialogue.
His visit represents the most high-profile outreach to Muslims by the Donald Trump administration since the brash billionaire came to office and echoes a similar trip by Barack and Michelle Obama in 2010.
Since becoming president almost 100 days ago, Trump has hosted leaders from majority-Muslim Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
But his administration has also tried to ban travelers from several Muslim-majority nations, citing concerns about terrorism — an effort currently being challenged in US courts.
As a presidential candidate, Trump often appeared to flirt with the far right as he railed against “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Pence arrived at the presidential palace in Jakarta for talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo to a colorful official welcome by hundreds of schoolchildren in regional dress.
Indonesia, where most practice a moderate form of Islam, has long been held up as an example of a successful Muslim democracy where followers of the faith live largely peacefully alongside religious minorities.
After talks with Widodo, Pence said: “Indonesia’s tradition of moderate Islam is frankly an inspiration to the world and we commend you and your people.
“In your nation as in mine, religion unifies, it doesn’t divide.”
But his optimistic words came as Indonesia’s traditionally inclusive Islam is under threat from the rising influence of hard-liners and an increasing trend toward more conservative forms of the faith.
On Wednesday Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was defeated in a run-off election to lead the capital by a Muslim challenger who was accused of pandering to hard-liners to win votes.
Purnama, known by his nickname Ahok, lost after his once-unassailable lead in opinion polls was dented by allegations he committed blasphemy, claims that sparked mass protests led by radical groups but were seen by his supporters as unfair and politically motivated.
Pence is currently on a tour of South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia that is aimed at smoothing some of the rougher edges of Trump’s rhetoric.
In South Korea and Japan, Pence played down protectionist declarations of “America first” and reaffirmed US treaty commitments to the security of the two countries as tensions rise over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Pence’s Muslim outreach in Indonesia has been welcomed locally, with Maruf Amin, the head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top Muslim clerical body, saying he hopes that it “indicates a change in attitude” toward Islam.
But it is unlikely to be enough to assuage fears that the Trump administration is anti-Islam.
“President Trump’s hostile pronouncements on Islam and Muslims have done considerable damage to his reputation in the Islamic world. It would take more than a visit to repair the damage,” said Fawaz Gerges, an expert on the Middle East and Islam from the London School of Economics.
After his talks with Widodo, Pence also said that the US was committed to building a stronger defense partnership with Indonesia to combat the threat of terrorism.
Indonesia has long struggled with Islamic militancy, and in January last year suffered a suicide and gun attack claimed by the Daesh group that left four assailants and four civilians dead.
He also pledged to uphold the “fundamental freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. Indonesian and Chinese vessels have clashed repeatedly in recent times in waters near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, on the fringes of the disputed waters.
Widodo, who wants more foreign investment as he seeks to boost Southeast Asia’s top economy, said the leaders had focused on “the US commitment to enhance the strategic partnership with Indonesia, focusing on cooperation and investment.”


Flood rescue stepped up as more torrential rain batters Kerala

Updated 8 min 20 sec ago
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Flood rescue stepped up as more torrential rain batters Kerala

  • Thousands of people are waiting to be rescued as relentless monsoon rains cause extensive flooding
  • The central government has dispatched military units to Kerala, but state officials are pleading for additional help

KOCHI, India: Rescuers in helicopters and boats fought through renewed torrential rain Saturday to reach stranded villages in India’s Kerala state as the toll from the worst monsoon floods in a century rose above 320 dead.
Dozens of military and coast guard helicopters took troops to high risk areas seeking people trapped on the roofs of submerged buildings. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the crisis as “devastating” after visiting Kerala.
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced late Friday that the monsoon death toll had dramatically risen to 324.
Media reports said at least another 14 bodies were found Saturday and state officials said they expected the number to rise as more landslides were reported and dam levels remained dangerously high. No new official toll was given however.
With power and communication lines down, thousands remained trapped in towns and villages cut off by the floods amid growing shortages of food and water.
Helicopters have been dropping emergency food and water supplies across Kerala, while special trains carrying drinking water and rice have been sent to the state.


With rain alerts hanging over much of the state, dozens of dam and reservoir gates across the state have had to be opened as the waters reached danger levels, inundating many villages downstream.
Particular fears have been raised for Chengannur, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, which has been cut off for four days.
Troops and military boats have been sent to the town and media reports said bodies had been found. The state government did not immediately give an updated toll early Saturday.
Saji Cherian, who represents Chengannur in the Kerala assembly, said he feared there were at least 50 dead in the town and broke down in tears as he pleaded for more help on Asianet TV late Friday.
“Please give us a helicopter. I am begging you. Please help me, people in my place will die. Please help us. There is no other solution, people have to be airlifted,” he said.
“We did what we can with fishing boats we procured using our political clout. But we can’t do more.”

With no end in sight to the rains, people all over the state of 33 million have made panic-stricken appeals on social media for help, saying they cannot make contact with rescue services.
Some say they are trapped inside temples and hospitals as well as submerged homes.
Authorities have warned that rains and strong winds are predicted for many parts of Kerala on Saturday and Sunday.
Prime Minister Modi arrived in Kerala on Friday night and held meetings with state leaders and went on a brief air inspection tour.
“I took stock of the situation arising in the wake of the devastating floods across the state,” Modi said in a Twitter statement.
An immediate grant of $75 million was offered by the government. Other state governments promised nearly $20 million.
Opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi demanded though that Modi declare the flood crisis a “national disaster.”
Dozens of military helicopters stepped up rescue operations across the state and in one a heavily pregnant woman Sajita Jabeel, 25, gave birth just after her rescue, an Indian Navy spokesman said.

“It was a very critical case, the lady was in labor, her water had broken,” the pilot, the pilot Commandeer Vijay Verma told News18 television.
“We took a doctor along, we winched her up, it took some time though because we had to winch down two people to help her get on to the strop.”
Another pilot, Captain P. Rajkumar, winched 26 people up from a rooftop after guiding the helicopter through trees and other houses.
A video of his Sea King pulling up the victims has been widely shared on social media. He ended up with 32 people in his Sea King helicopter.
Rajkumar was given the Shaurya Chakra medal for bravery this week after lifting a fisherman from the sea when cyclone Ockhi hit India last year.