MANILA, Philippines (AP) – A mammoth crowd of mostly barefoot Filipino Catholics prayed for peace in the Middle East as they began an annual procession of a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ in one of Asia’s biggest religious events Thursday.
The daylong procession of the wooden Black Nazarene draws massive numbers of mostly poor Catholic devotees who pray for the sick and a better life each year. But widespread fears over the escalating conflict between the United States and Iran were highlighted in a predawn Mass before Thursday’s raucous procession unfolded.
“Let us remember that in other parts of the world, the threat of violence is brewing and, hopefully, this will not lead to war,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle told the crowd at a Manila seaside park.
The popular Manila church leader asked the tens of thousands of devotees clad in maroon shirts – the color of the Black Nazarene’s robe – to briefly pause in silence and pray for peace in the Middle East and the safety of its people, including many Filipino expatriate workers.
“Let us pray … that the desire to retaliate eases,” Tagle said.
One of the world’s leading labor providers, the Philippines would face a gargantuan crisis if hostilities between the U.S. and Iran escalate and embroil other Middle Eastern countries that host many Filipinos, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The Philippine government on Wednesday ordered Filipino workers to leave Iraq and Iran. The military prepared to deploy navy ships, three air force cargo planes and one battalion each of marines and army troops to help the evacuations in case hostilities worsen.
Organizers of the Black Nazarene events expect up to 4 million people to join the procession, which usually ends late at night when the life-size statue of Christ is returned to a church in Manila’s working-class district of Quiapo.
More than 12,000 police, including bomb squads, were deployed to secure the procession, though authorities said they have not monitored any specific security threat to the event.
Aside from ensuring devotees stay safe in the huge crowds, police also work to clear the streets in front of the carriage bearing the statue, curbing considerably the time of the usually dawn-to-midnight procession. Guns and liquor were banned and cellphone signals were jammed in the vicinity.
Devotees who were pushed back when they tried to touch the statue complained, but despite the security and the tropical heat, mobs of people dangerously squeezed into a tight pack of humanity around the carriage. They threw small towels at volunteers on the carriage, for them to wipe parts of the cross and the statue and return them, in the belief that the Nazarene’s powers cure ailments and ensure good health and a better life.
Dozens of people fainted or sustained injuries and were carried away on stretchers by Red Cross volunteers.
Crowned with thorns and bearing a cross, the Nazarene statue is believed to have been brought from Mexico to Manila on a galleon in 1606 by Spanish missionaries. The ship that carried it caught fire, but the charred statue survived. Some believe the statue’s endurance, from fires and earthquakes through the centuries and intense bombings during World War II, is a testament to its powers.
The spectacle reflects the unique brand of Catholicism, which includes folk superstitions, in Asia’s largest Catholic nation. Dozens of Filipinos have themselves nailed to crosses on Good Friday in another tradition that draws huge crowds and tourists each year.
Such religious passion has continued in the Philippines even as President Rodrigo Duterte has stepped up attacks on the Catholic church, faith and bishops, who have criticized the thousands of killings under his anti-drug crackdown. Duterte sparked outrage among many Catholics two years ago when he called God “stupid” and later questioned the basic tenets of the Catholic faith. He offered to immediately resign if anybody can prove that God exists.