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Bush praises Indonesia, angers clerics

Bali, Oct. 22 (Reuters): The world’s most populous Muslim nation was praised today by US President George W. Bush for supporting the war on terror, but he told Indonesia that Islamic extremists had defiled a great religion.

Bush, however, ran afoul of leading moderate Muslim clerics during talks on the resort island of Bali, where Islamic militants linked to al Qaida blew up two nightclubs packed with foreign holidaymakers just over a year ago, killing 202 people.

Reflecting growing mistrust of the US among ordinary Indonesians, the clerics criticised Washington for supporting Israel over the Palestinians and for the occupation of Iraq. They said Bush needed to listen more to the opinions of the rest of the world. Bush, speaking against the backdrop of a palm-fringed beach and turquoise sea, expressed his gratitude to Indonesia after meeting President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the clerics.

“We know that Islam is fully compatible with liberty and tolerance and progress because we see the proof in your country and in our own,” he said.

“Terrorists who claim Islam as their inspiration defile one of the world’s greatest faiths. Murder has no place in any religious tradition. It must find no home in Indonesia.”

Bush said he wanted to correct what he felt was a misconception that the war on terror was a cover for a war against Islam or that Americans thought all Muslims were terrorists.

Bush paid the brief visit to Bali under blanket security before flying to the Australian capital Canberra for talks with key ally Prime Minister John Howard as part of a six-nation tour. He paid tribute to the victims of the Bali bombings.

Indonesia took no chances with security, deploying seven warships along with 5,000 heavily armed police and troops backed up by sniffer dogs and bomb squad units.

Bush hoped his visit would help dampen anti-Americanism in Indonesia. Megawati said she attached “great importance” to Jakarta’s relationship with the US. But the Muslim clerics told Bush that United States policies in West Asia were one of the root causes of terror attacks.

“We told him US foreign policy should seek a new paradigm if the America wants to be respected by the world community and be safe,” Syafii Maarif, head of the second-largest Muslim group in Indonesia, Muhammadiyah, said.

Maarif said he told Bush his policies toward Israel were “extraordinary” and his fear of terrorists “excessive”. However, he said later that the meeting was also a positive development.

“I think I once said Bush was like Genghis Khan... but I didn’t tell him that. If I consider what has happened, it was an open and lively meeting which we did not expect,” he said.

Hasyim Muzadi, leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, the 40-million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama, said the meeting was part of a “never-ending struggle”. “The clash between Islam and America needs to be stopped because this will destroy everything,” he said.

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