JAKARTA (Reuters) - First lady Michelle Obama donned a headscarf on a visit to an mosque in Indonesia on Wednesday, not a requirement for a non-Muslim but a sign of the Obamas’ efforts to show respect for the Islamic world.
Wearing a beige headscarf adorned with gold beads and a flowing chartreuse trouser suit, the first lady toured Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque, Southeast Asia’s largest, while on a short state visit to the world’s most populous Muslim country.
U.S. President Barack Obama had been expected to visit another major religious site during his Asian tour, the Sikh Golden Temple in India, but media reports said the visit was canceled after aides balked at the idea of the president wearing a scarf or skullcap required at the site.
Barack Obama is a Christian but faces persistent sniping among some members of the U.S. public that he is a Muslim and, the reports said, aides feared pictures of him wearing such headgear could fuel such rumors.
Obama, who is using the Indonesia visit as a platform to reach out to the wider Islamic world by praising Indonesia’s pluralism in a speech on Wednesday, pointed out that the city’s Catholic cathedral was opposite the mosque.
As the shoeless Obamas crossed the mosque’s wide courtyard, the president told reporters that the churchgoers used the mosque’s parking lot at Christmas and said that was “an example of the kind of cooperation” between religions in Indonesia.
Indonesia is officially secular, though nearly 90 percent of the population is Muslim and all citizens need to be registered as believers as one of six permitted religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Atheism is not allowed.
The Istiqlal mosque, made from German steel and Javanese marble with a single soaring minaret in the form of a candle, was built by a Christian architect and can hold over 100,000 worshippers.
Michelle Obama, rated as the world’s most powerful woman by Forbes magazine, was on her first visit to a country where her husband lived for four years as a child.
As part of the welcome ceremonies on Tuesday she shook hands with Indonesian Information Minister Sembiring, from the Islamic political party PKS, who has in the past not shaken hands with women and often opts for a prayer-like palm clasp instead.
While relations between the sexes are generally open in Indonesia, the western state of Aceh has sharia law and police crack down on unmarried couples sitting together.
The issue underlines tensions the country is facing between its moderate Muslim majority and a more conservative Middle Eastern-influence form of Islam promoted by PKS and hardline Islamic groups.
The government has cracked down on Islamic militant groups that bombed hotels in Jakarta last year and killed over 200 people in attacks in Bali in 2002. While sporadic violence between Muslim and Christian communities seen last decade has faded, Christians face hurdles to win approval for new churches.
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle accompanying the Obamas; Editing by David Fox