Thousands of Indonesian Muslims rally for Islamic law

JAKARTA (Reuters) - About 5,000 Indonesian Muslims marched peacefully through Jakarta on Saturday, calling for the nationwide imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, to rescue the country from its many ills.

Chanting "God is Greatest" and carrying placards that read "we miss sharia", the crowd marched through central Jakarta to the top legislature, which is holding its annual session.

There, they urged legislators meeting on Saturday to change the constitution to introduce sharia across the world's most populous Muslim nation, which has overwhelmingly moderate religious views. The crowd dispersed peacefully after midday.

Conservative Muslim legislators, as they have in recent years, are expected to submit proposed constitutional changes during the assembly's 10-day annual session that would recognise sharia. That effort has failed to get much support in the past and key parties have already rejected the idea this time around.

"Save Indonesia with sharia," shouted hundreds of teenaged girls in white veils, as police cleared a path through the mid-morning traffic.

Older women carried babies in slings or pushed their children along in the odd pram.

Over the past 10 years, mosque attendance has risen and Islam become more important to the identity of Indonesians, but moderate Muslim leaders dismiss suggestions the nation could become an Islamic state in the decades to come.

Conservative Muslims believe sharia would help root out woes such as endemic corruption in Indonesia by imposing stricter punishments, although few favour drastic measures carried out in parts of the Middle East such as stoning adulterers.

The rally came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Jakarta, pledging $50 million to help the security forces fight terrorism while expressing admiration for a Muslim nation that "allows (its) diversity to flower".

Indonesia plunged into turmoil in late 1997 during the Asian financial crisis, and has struggled to rebuild its economy and manage a messy transition to democracy from authoritarianism.

The marchers came from a low-profile conservative Muslim group, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, which had predicted 20,000 would join the rally.

None of Indonesia's small extremist Muslim groups, some of which have members linked by neighbouring countries to terror organisations, were present.

Jakarta last year allowed sharia to be used in Aceh as part of an autonomy package designed to douse independence demands in the staunchly Muslim province on the tip of Sumatra island. There have been no reports of drastic punishments.

The annual session of the 700-member People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) opened on Thursday.

Some 85 percent of Indonesia's 210 million people are Muslim, where Islam has long been a softer version of that practised in the Middle East, after blending with traditional cultures across Indonesia's main island of Java and other parts of the country.