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The handshake that shook Indonesia

A  conservative Muslim minister in Indonesia is facing criticism for  shaking Michelle Obama's hand during her visit. On his Twitter  account, he blamed her for the forbidden contact.

Tim Sloan, AFP, Getty Images

A conservative Muslim minister in Indonesia is facing criticism for shaking Michelle Obama's hand during her visit. On his Twitter account, he blamed her for the forbidden contact.

National Post; With Files From Agence France-Presse ·

Barack Obama's long awaited and oft-postponed visit to Indonesia where he lived as a child was overshadowed yesterday by claims his wife Michelle had forced a conservative Muslim cabinet minister to shake hands.

Tifatul Sembiring, the Information Minister who says he never touches women who are not relatives, admits he shook Ms. Obama's hand, but adds he was basically forced into it.

"I tried to prevent [being touched] with my hands but Mrs. Michelle held her hands too far toward me [so] we touched," he said on his Twitter account. However, analysis of their brief encounter in the receiving lineup does not bear him out.

In footage of the official welcome, Mr. Sembiring appeared to share his countrymen's enthusiasm for the Obama visit. He smiled broadly as he shook the U.S. President's hand and then reached with both hands to grasp Michelle's, The Associated Press reported.

His retraction came after he received tweets from Indonesians who noted the handshake, saying it called into question his long-standing claims that, as a good Muslim, he restricts his contact with women.

After their arrival in Jakarta, Mr. Obama and his wife paid a whirlwind visit to his boyhood home, with Mr. Obama saying he would never have believed he could come back as U.S. President.

"It's wonderful to be here although I have to tell you that when you visit a place that you spent time in as a child, as the President it's a little disorientating," he said.

"The landscape has changed completely, when I first came here it was in 1967 and people were on becaks ... a bicycle rickshaw thing."

Mr. Obama arrived in Indonesia ahead of a cloud of volcanic ash spewing from Mount Merapi in central Java, which has played havoc with commercial aviation traffic in recent days. But he has been forced to curtail his visit and will leave nearly two hours ahead of schedule today, amid concerns his plane would otherwise be grounded by ash.

Indonesia was the second stop on Mr. Obama's Asia tour. He will travel on to South Korea for the Group of 20 summit and end his trip in Yokohama, Japan, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.

In Jakarta he admitted the task he set in last year's speech in Cairo to Muslims of forging a "new beginning" with Islam remained incomplete and there was "a lot more work to do."

"We don't expect that we are going to completely eliminate some of the misunderstandings and mistrust that have developed over a long period of time, but we do think that we're on the right path," he told reporters at a joint press conference with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian President. He also criticized Israel's decision to build 1,300 new settler homes in east Jerusalem, warning it risked wrecking an already frail peace process with the Palestinians.

"This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations," he said.

"I'm concerned that we're not seeing each side make the extra effort to get a breakthrough that could finally create a framework for a secure Israel living side-by-side in peace with a sovereign Palestine."