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Obama praises Indonesia for religious tolerance

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

Most visible were several dozen members of Hizb ut Tahrir, a fringe group that advocates for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.

Waving black banners emblazoned with anti-Obama messages written in Arabic, the protesters chanted “Allahu Akhbar,” or “God is great,” as police in full riot gear watched the crowd and kept it from moving within sight of the road and Obama’s motorcade.

“Obama is the president of an imperialist state that kills Muslims all over the world and robs Muslim resources,” said Farid, one of the group’s local leaders.

Prior to his long-awaited speech, Obama spent the morning touring Istiqlal mosque, which sits opposite a cathedral close to central Jakarta’s towering national monument. The trip to the mosque was symbolic said Noorhaidi Hasan, a lecturer in Islam and politics at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University in Jakarta. That symbolism resonated with most people in Jakarta, he said.

In a city that has seen more than its fair share of religious violence — last July two hotels here were bombed by a group linked to Al Qaeda, and seven people were killed — Obama’s visit was also seen as a sign that Indonesia has become safer for business and tourists.

“This shows the world that our country is stable,” said Heru Jakarim, a law student at Jakarta’s Universitas Swasta Indonesia. “There are demonstrations, but they are completely peaceful. And the police have been well-behaved, too.”

Inside the grounds of the University of Indonesia, crowds of students wearing traditional Indonesian batik shirts chattered excitedly about the speech they had been fortunate enough to be invited to.

“I remember he said ‘Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty,’ said 18-year-old Santi, who studies international relations at the university. “I really liked that. I tweeted it, actually.”

Clutching the paper invitations they had shown up at dawn to collect, Santi and her two friends laughed when they were asked what they planned to do with the documents.

“I’m just going to wave it at my friends and say ‘yeaahhh!’” Santi said. “I feel so proud today to be a student at this university.”