Huge crowds stage procession

Filipino Roman Catholic devotees climb the carriage to kiss and rub with their towels the image of the Black Nazarene to celebrate its feast day Jan 9, in Manila, Philippines. The raucous celebration drew tens of thousands of devotees in a barefoot procession that last for several hours around Manila streets and end up with several people injured. (AP)

MANILA, Jan 9, (Agencies): 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. As the procession continued into the night, the Philippine Red Cross said its medical staff had treated about 1,200 people along the route for dizziness, bruising and sprains. However, there were no major casualties.

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.

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. Benjamin Tayzon, a 64-year-old businessman, brought some of his children and grandchildren, to one of Asia’s largest religious gatherings, although he lost two toes in 1990 when the wheels of the carriage of the Black Nazarene ran over his left foot. He said it may have been God’s way of telling him that he has committed too many sins.

“It’s a remembrance, like a tattoo that can never be erased,” Tayzon told The Associated Press as he walked barefoot, carrying a small replica of the statue on his head. Others came to pray for sick loved ones like Jenny Benedicto, whose 4-year-old son is afflicted by a lung ailment. Benedicto struggled to get close to touch the statue with a towel in the hope that the cloth can help heal her son if she wiped it on him. She got pinned by the mammoth crowd, however, and fainted in the chaos, she told The AP in a first-aid station.

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