U.S. Vice President Mike Pence accompanied by Chief Imam Nasaruddin Umar (L) and Chairman of the Istiqlal Mosque Management Executive Board, Muhammad Muzammil Basyuni (R) during his visit to the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Adi Weda/Pool(reuters_tickers)
By Roberta Rampton
JAKARTA (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence toured Southeast Asia's largest mosque on Thursday during a visit to Indonesia, calling the Muslim-majority nation's tradition of following a moderate form of Islam "an inspiration to the world".
Pence, an evangelical Christian, has sought to use his trip to soften some of the harsher edges of rhetoric about the Muslim world used by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has frequently railed against "radical Islamic terrorism."
As leader of the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has voiced worries about Trump's immigration policy, which critics say is biased against Muslims.
Pence, standing side by side with Widodo at a news conference, said: "One of the greatest threats we face is the rise and spread of terrorism," though he did not refer to "radical Islam".
"As the largest majority-Muslim country, Indonesia's tradition of moderate Islam, frankly, is an inspiration to the world," he said.
"In your nation as in mine, religion unifies, it doesn't divide," he added.
Pence, joined by his wife and daughters, later went on a tour of Jakarta's Istiqlal mosque, posing for pictures in the massive empty courtyard and walking through the five-storey prayer hall, big enough to hold 200,000 people.
Afterwards, he met religious leaders from various faiths, including Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and others.
Indonesia is officially secular and most of its 220 million Muslims practise a moderate form of Islam, although the country has some vocal Islamist groups and has suffered in the past from attacks by militants.
Pence is visiting Indonesia a day after the Indonesian capital Jakarta elected a new Muslim governor who rode a wave of conservative Islamist votes to defeat an incumbent Christian on trial charged with blasphemy against the Koran.
Hardline Islamic groups on Wednesday night had celebrated the election win at the Istiqlal mosque.
After meeting President Widodo, Pence said his administration wanted fairer trade with Southeast Asia's biggest economy. Indonesia is one of 16 countries under review for having a trade surplus with the United States.
Official data from Indonesia's trade ministry puts total trade between the countries at $23.44 billion in 2016, with Indonesia recording a surplus of $8.84 billion. Indonesia mainly exports textiles, footwear and seafood and mainly imports aircraft, machinery and soybeans from America.
During a visit to the headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta, Pence confirmed that President Trump will attend three regional summits in November: a U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia summit in the Philippines and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Vietnam.
He said the Trump administration would work with ASEAN on security issues, trade and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, but has overlapping claims with a number of Southeast Asian countries.
Pence arrived in Jakarta late on Wednesday from Japan where he reassured Tokyo of a U.S. commitment to rein in North Korea's nuclear and missile ambitions.
Washington had billed Pence's visit to Jakarta as a booster for a strategic partnership between the world's second- and third-largest democracies, but a raft of bilateral disputes with U.S. companies could sap the goodwill from his trip.
Over the past six months, Indonesia has wrestled with mining giant Freeport McMoRan, demanding the company divest 51 percent of its shares in its Papua-based gold and copper mine, and has demanded that Google Inc. settle unpaid taxes and fines of more than $400 million. Jakarta also deleted JP Morgan from its list of primary bond dealers after what was deemed a negative research report.
Google declined to comment for this report and JPMorgan did not respond to a request for comment.
Freeport Indonesia spokesman Riza Pratama said: "This visit is happening entirely independent of our current negotiations with the government of Indonesia."
Widodo's approach to foreign policy has been led more by economic interests than geopolitical considerations: he has pursued increased trade and investment from China, but keeps a diplomatic distance from Beijing and established a strategic partnership with Washington under former President Barack Obama.
Widodo said at the joint news conference with Pence the two countries would "increase the strategic partnership... which will focus on cooperation and investments".
He said over the next month the two sides will form a team to discuss the "management of bilateral trades and investment based on the principle of a win-win solution".
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Bill Tarrant)