A 100-foot statue depicting a Chinese deity was covered with an enormous sheet this past weekend in East Java Province, Indonesia, after Muslims threatened to tear the colossus down amid mounting ethnic and religious tensions across the country.
The Islamist campaign against the statue, a depiction of the third-century general Guan Yu, who is worshiped as a god in several Chinese religions, began online and soon spread to the gates of a Chinese Confucian temple in Tuban, near the Java Sea coast, where the figure was erected last month.
On social media, Muslims assailed the statue as an “uncivilized” affront to Islam and the island’s “home people,” and a mob gathered this week outside the East Java legislature in the city of Surabaya to demand its destruction.
Statues deemed un-Islamic have been destroyed or vandalized around Indonesia in recent years, and several Chinese temples have been set on fire. Covering the statue with a large white tarp was a stopgap measure proposed by the temple’s officials after a governmental religious body pushed them to find a solution.
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, and ethnic Chinese — largely Christian, Buddhist or Confucian — make up less than 5 percent of the overall population. The recent anti-Chinese animus is driven in part by an increased influence of extremist Muslim ideology in the country’s politics, experts said.
“Anti-Chinese sentiment has become quite strong,” said Aan Anshori, a coordinator at the East Java Muslim Anti-Discrimination Network, which opposed covering the statue. “It’s quite worrying to think that these sentiments could be used by politicians in the future.”
In recent years, Muslim extremists have pressed for the adoption of Islamic law, or Shariah, throughout Indonesia. A civil court found the Christian governor of the capital, Jakarta, guilty of blasphemy against Islam in May. Islamists falsely claimed that President Joko Widodo was a Chinese Christian during his 2014 campaign.
Colossal statues of Guan Yu have been erected around the world. The Tuban statue, which took more than a year to build at a cost of about $188,000, is the largest of its type in Southeast Asia, according to Indonesia’s Museum of World Records.
Adding to tensions between Chinese and Muslim Indonesians is a sense that as Beijing becomes more dominant in the region — exerting financial and military influence — ethnic Chinese will profit at the expense of Muslims.
“It is growing religious intolerance, making their own interpretation of the Quran and using that hostile interpretation against the Chinese temple,” said Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia director for Human Rights Watch. “They say that it is showing that China is dominating Indonesia.”
Didik Muadi, a Muslim who organized the protests against the statue, said Muslims would destroy the figure themselves if the government did not intervene.
“Actually, we can allow them to build the statue, just not as high as it was and it should be in the temple, not outside,” Mr. Didik told the news site Tempo. “We are tolerant.”