MANILA: Masses of Catholic devotees in the Philippine capital braved sizzling weather and terrorist fears on Monday in a frenzied bid to touch a centuries-old statue of Jesus Christ that is believed to have miraculous powers.
The annual parade, which police said attracted more than one million people, is one of the world’s biggest displays of Catholic devotion and showcases the Philippines’ status as the Church’s bastion in Asia.
Many Filipinos believe touching or getting close to the life-sized statue, which was brought to the Philippines in the early 1600s when the nation was a Spanish colony, can lead to the healing of otherwise incurable ailments and other good fortune.
“If you seek a favour it will be granted as long as you pray hard,” Lolit Gonzales, 45, told AFP as she sat on the sidewalk after taking her turn pulling on a thick length of rope that moved the statue’s carriage forward.
The Manila manicurist attributed the healing two years ago of a painful right knee, which her doctor had told her required surgery and medicines that she could not afford, to taking part in the procession at that time.
Gonzales said she had returned on Monday to ensure her knee ailment did not recur, since she had no health insurance and was the only breadwinner in her family.
The pilgrims walked Manila’s concrete streets as the temperature climbed above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) without footwear as a sign of penance and to imitate a barefoot Jesus carrying the cross before he was crucified.
The statue is called the Black Nazarene because of its charred colour, believed to have occurred when it survived a fire aboard a ship when being brought to the Philippines from Mexico.
Replica crosses and other religious icons and images followed the cross carriage six abreast, borne on the back of trucks, atop pedicabs and manually drawn carriages in an extremely slow procession that was expected to last into the night.
One small truck carried nuns in white robes sprinkling holy water on the sweaty pilgrims and reciting the Holy Rosary prayer in Spanish.
Such extreme forms of worship are a hallmark of the Philippines which is 80 percent Roman Catholic, a legacy of four centuries of Spanish colonialism that ended in 1898.
President Rodrigo Duterte often gives conflicting signals about his religious convictions and criticises the Church’s leaders, but he offered encouragement on Monday to those involved in the procession.
“Prayers are likely answered because we do not give up or get tired from asking God for the fulfilment of our heart’s desires,” Duterte said.
“Such is the phenomenal expression of faith of the millions of devotees in the form of gratitude, petition, and sacrifice shown in the image of the Black Nazarene every feast day on the 9th of January every year.”
This year’s event was held under the threat of Islamic militant attacks, with authorities reporting more than 5,700 police had been deployed to provide security.
National police chief Ronald dela Rosa had said repeatedly in recent days that extremists who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group may try to stage an attack.
The Philippines has a Muslim minority that is mainly based in the south of the country and has long resented the Catholic domination of their ancestral homelands.
A separatist rebellion in the south has claimed more than 120,000 lives since the 1970s.
The major rebel organisations are now involved in peace talks with the government and no longer waging armed conflict.
But small hardline groups still carry out attacks, particularly against Catholics.
The most recent was a bomb blast at a crowded market in Duterte’s hometown of Davao in September last year that killed 15 people.