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Obama praises Indonesia for religious tolerance

Obama emphasizes the importance of personal and political ties to largest Muslim country.

Barack Obama, speech, Indonesia
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, Nov. 10, 2010. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — U.S. President Barack Obama reminisced about the city where he spent years as a child as he sought to stress the importance of rebuilding America’s relationship with the Muslim world in a speech today in a Jakarta suburb.

With occasional snippets of Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, Obama draw frequent parallels between the United States and Indonesia throughout his 30-minute speech, citing both countries’ commitment to democracy, development and religious freedom.

And the president credited Indonesia with providing him with invaluable insights and experiences that have helped shape his life and his policies.

“My time here helped me appreciate the common humanity of all people,” he said, speaking to an elated crowd of students, dignitaries and old friends packed into an auditorium at the University of Indonesia in Depak, a southern suburb of Jakarta.

To laughter and applause, the president recalled hearing the cries from vendors selling sate and meatball soup in his old neighborhood.

“Enak, ya!” he said, in one of the morning’s best-received lines. “It’s delicious, eh!”

Throughout his brief visit to Indonesia — the world's most populous Muslim country — Obama has stressed the importance of religious tolerance and ties between the United States and Muslim world.

Previous American leaders have tarnished that relationship, he said, and this trip is another concrete step he has made toward bringing the West closer to Islam.

Indonesia is the second leg of Obama's 10-day, four-nation tour through Asia. Two previous trips to Indonesia this year had been canceled — the first in March because of the U.S. health care vote and the second in June because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Outside the university building, three elderly local men in prayer caps said that, while they understood little of the president’s speech, the fact that Obama greeted the crowd with the words “As salamu Alaykum” was enough to impress them.

“That really made me happy,” said 62-year-old Hambali, who was waiting on the main street leading to campus hoping for a glimpse of the president’s motorcade. “This neighborhood, like this city, is so proud to host him.”

Muhamad Guntur Romli, a local Muslim intellectual, said the vast majority of Jakartans were honored to host the first African-American U.S. president. Obama’s allusions in his speech to his fondness for Indonesian food and his recollections about a Jakarta that is long gone helped to further cement his reputation as a native son here, Romli said.

“This isn’t like welcoming the United States president, it’s like welcoming home an old friend — even a member of our family,” Romli said.

Watch how Obama's old friends remember the future president:

In turn, Obama lavished praise on Indonesia, saying that this country has made great strides toward combating corruption and fighting radical Islamic terrorism. Like any former colonial nation, including the United States, Indonesia’s not perfect, he said, but the country has come a long way from the days when it was ruled by the “iron fist” of a dictatorship.

On the streets leading to the university, several hundred protesters made the most of their freedom to make their opinions heard.