Muslim hardline protesters cover their faces as police fire tear gas during a protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki (Ahok) Tjahaja Purnama on November 4, 2016. Photo: Reuters via Antara Foto/Widodo S Jusuf

Jakarta’s Christian governor was formally named a suspect in blasphemy allegations on Wednesday, after claims that he insulted Islam sparked a violent mass protest by Muslim hardliners in the Indonesian capital.

After a lengthy preliminary investigation, police said that the allegations against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is also a member of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority, should go to trial.

Religious groups in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country had demanded that Purnama, known by his nickname Ahok, be prosecuted for allegedly insulting the Koran while campaigning in elections for the Jakarta governorship.

The governor had accused his opponents of quoting a Koranic verse that suggests Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders, in order to trick people into voting against him.

The blasphemy claims have sparked much anger among Muslims – both moderate and hardline. Over 100,000 protesters took to the streets in Jakarta on November 4 demanding that Purnama be prosecuted, with the protest turning violent as night fell.

After a weeks-long investigation which involved questioning scores of witnesses, national police chief detective Ari Dono told reporters: “Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has been named suspect.”

“We have reached an agreement, even though it was not unanimous… that this case should be processed in an open trial,” he added.

Purnama will not be arrested but police ordered him not to leave the country.

Naming someone a suspect is a formal step in the Indonesian legal system that means authorities believe they have enough preliminary evidence to consider filing charges against someone.

If found guilty, Purnama – who is favourite to win February elections against two Muslim opponents – could be jailed for up to five years.

The protest earlier this month, which was the biggest in recent years in Indonesia, was peaceful during the day but as night fell descended into chaos, with protesters torching police cars and hurling rocks.

Scores of police officers were injured and one man died in the clashes close to the presidential palace in the heart of Jakarta.

Purnama has apologised for his remarks, which were made in September. He said he had been criticising those of his political rivals who had used the verse rather than the Koran itself. However this has done little to appease his opponents.

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