In the United States, it might not be such a big deal if Election Day fell on the same day as the beginning of Lent. Most US elections are scheduled on Tuesdays, but it’s conceivable that a primary election might fall on Ash Wednesday. Catholics can still make it to church to get ashes and also go out and vote.
But in Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy after India and the US, polls in this year’s presidential election remain open from only 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. And Catholic bishops there are so concerned that members of their flock not miss the chance to participate in the vote this year that they are “moving Ash Wednesday” to another day of the week.
Christians make up only about 10% of Indonesia’s population of 267 million, which is 87% Muslim. Catholics are about about 3%, or about 9 million people. Church leaders in the archipelago in Southeast Asia and Oceania feel it’s important that the small voice not be made even smaller because some Catholic voters not make it to the polls on Ash Wednesday.
Some dioceses, such as the Archdiocese of Jakarta, will observe Ash Wednesday on the next day, Thursday, February 15. Others are holding services the day before the traditional day of prayer and fasting.
On the archipelago’s Catholic-majority Flores Island, mission stations in remote areas are being allowed to carry out Ash Wednesday rituals on the first Sunday of Lent, February 19, said Bishop Siprianus Hormat of Ruteng, in a pastoral letter.
The elections will determine a new president, vice-president, and 711 members of the national assembly.
“Both the general election and Ash Wednesday are important for us as Catholics and Indonesians,” said Bishop Antonius Subianto Bunjamin of Bandung, President of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference. “The active involvement in both events are the responsibility to fulfill our duty as citizens and our call to repent as Christians,” Bishop Bunjamin told Crux. “We believe that we have to live as 100% Catholic and 100% Indonesian.”
Said Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo of Jakarta, “The decision not to celebrate the Ash Wednesday Mass on Wednesday morning is mainly based on pastoral prudence, that is, to allow the Catholics to have enough time to go to the polling station and give their votes. In other words, we hope that Church-based activities will not hinder them from giving their votes.”
In its latest annual report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said that Indonesia’s religious freedom conditions “remained poor.”