JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Dozens of conservative Muslims marched in Indonesia’s capital on Monday to protest Israel’s participation in its first-ever FIFA U-20 (under the age of 20) men’s World Cup, hosted in Indonesia.
The world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation is hosting the U-20 World Cup from May 20 to June 11 in Indonesia’s six major cities. A total of 24 countries from five continents are participating, including Israel, after a two-year delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the host country, Indonesia is automatically qualified for the tournament.
Although Indonesia does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel and is a strong supporter of the Palestinians, officials say the government will not prevent Israel from taking part in the tournament.
Waving white flags bearing the Islamic declaration of faith along with Indonesian and Palestinian flags, more than 100 demonstrators filled a major thoroughfare in downtown Jakarta. They halted traffic, chanting “Allahu Akbar” and “Get out Israel from U-20 World Cup.” Authorities blocked streets leading to the Presidential Palace.
The protest was organized by a conservative Muslim alliance that held mass demonstrations in 2016 against Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, which led to him being imprisoned for blasphemy.
Several moderate Muslim groups in the country also joined in calls for the Israeli players to be denied a place in the tournament. They included Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, which counts more than 60 million members, Medical Emergency Rescue Committee, widely known as Mer-C, and the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s highest Islamic body.
“Israel’s long history of oppression against the Palestinian people motivates us to strongly reject Israel’s presence in any form in Indonesia,” said Nur Aida, a protester.
Countries qualify for the U-20 World Cup based on performances in their respective U-20 or U-19 continental competitions.
Last year, England won the title while the three other semi-finalists, Israel, France and Italy, as well as play-off winner Slovakia, all joined them in qualifying for Indonesia 2023. For runners-up Israel, this will be their first-ever appearance at a FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah said it is FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, that decides on the participation of all teams and the rules of the game at the tournament.
“Despite Indonesia’s position as the U-20 host, our country’s consistent stance on Palestine will not waver, not even a little,” Faizasyah told a news briefing.
Early this month, Youth and Sports Minister Zainudin Amali said the government will guarantee the safety of all teams.
Gaining the right to host the U-20 World Cup was a major milestone in Indonesia’s soccer development, raising hopes that a successful tournament would turn around long-standing problems that have blighted the sport in the country of 277 million people.
Last October, 135 people died at a league game between host Arema FC of East Java’s Malang city and Persebaya Surabaya when police fired tear gas inside the stadium, setting off a panicked run for the exits.
A court this month acquitted two police officials of a charge of negligence leading to the deaths and sentenced up to 18 months in prison a third official as well as the organizing committee chair for Arema FC and the club’s security chief. The verdict drew outcries from rights activists and families of the victims.