MUMBAI – As the world’s largest Muslim nation heads to the polls on Feb. 14, which also happens to be Ash Wednesday this year, the country’s bishops are making special provisions to ensure that the minority Catholic population can head to the polls.
At the same time, bishops are also calling on Indonesians to uphold the national ideology of Pancasila, which dates from the era of Sukarno and the push for independence from the Netherlands, as well as the country’s constitution, both of which guarantee religious freedom.
Critics, however, sometimes charge those guarantees are not always upheld in practice.
The Feb. 14 election in Indonesia, which is also the world’s third largest democracy after India and the United States, will select the president, vice president, members of the national parliament and also members of local legislative assemblies.
At the moment, the presidential race appears to be a three-way contest among Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto; Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the mayor of Solo and the son of outgoing President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo; and Former education minister and ex-Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan.
Controversially, the country’s constitutional court lowered the age limit for presidential and vice presidential candidates, a ruling most observers saw as tailor-made to allow the 36-year-old Gibran to attempt to succeed his father.
Issues driving the contest include a $30 billion plan to transfer Indonesia’s capital to a new “smart city,” economic development, foreign policy (especially relations with China) and also minority rights in the largely Muslim nation.
In order to ensure that the roughly nine million Catholics in Indonesia, representing just over three percent of the population, are able to take part in the election, some dioceses in the country have decided to hold Ash Wednesday services either on Tuesday, Feb. 13, or Thursday, Feb. 15, depending on local circumstances.
“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,” Bunjamin told Crux. “We believe that we have to live as 100 percent Catholic and 100 percent Indonesian.”
In his own diocese, Bunjamin said, services will still be held on Wednesday as usual, but he’s also given parishes the option of adding services on either Tuesday or Thursday so that people will not be forced to choose on Wednesday between attending church or casting their vote.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo of Jakarta, which, for the moment, remains the country’s capital city.
“We strongly encourage all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Jakarta to participate and give their vote in this upcoming election as a sign of their responsibility as a citizen and their love for this country,” Suharyo told Crux.
Given that polls will be open on Feb. 14 from 7:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m., Suharyo said, in Jakarta Ash Wednesday services will be held both on Tuesday and on Wednesday to allow Catholics to vote in addition to fulfilling their religious obligations.
“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 pooling station and give their votes,” Suharyo said. “In other words, we hope that Church-based activities will not hinder them from giving their votes.”
Although religious minorities in Indonesia in the past have been strong backers of Widodo, observers say this time the situation is more complicated, with some concerned that both Prabowo and Anies have the backing of radical Muslim parties, while the perception that the incumbent in trying to tilt the scales in favor of his son has created fears of a dynasty in the making.
Father Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Jesuit priest and professor who has authored several books on political philosophy, noted that Indonesia is in a “really dangerous situation.”
“For many of us, it is the question of how will Indonesian democracy go on?” Magnis-Suseno recently told Christianity Today. “Under Jokowi, democracy is going down … the drain.”
While Catholic leaders generally have avoided appearing to support particular candidates, they have called on voters to uphold minority rights.
“We suggest people to elect based on their conscience and in accordance with the whisper of the Holy Spirit,” Bunjamin said.
In a four-page circular latter in November that was co-signed by Bunyamin and Bishop Paskalis Bruno Syukur of Bogor, the two cited the country’s founding ideals of tolerance and religious freedom.
“We encourage the people to be actively involved in producing new leaders who uphold Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution, respect diversity, have integrity, prioritize national interests above personal or group interests, side with the small, weak, poor, marginalized and disabled, and who uphold human dignity and protect the integrity of natural creation,” the two bishops said.
“We ask the executive and legislative candidates as well as election organizers and the [armed forced] to unite in realizing peaceful, honest, fair, transparent, quality and dignified elections,” the bishops wrote.
There is recurrent speculation that Pope Francis may visit Indonesia. He was scheduled to do so in late 2020, but that trip was postponed due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.