MANILA, Philippines — A massive crowd of mostly barefoot Filipino Catholics joined a raucous procession of a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ under extra-tight security Tuesday after the Philippines came under a disastrous terrorist attack last year.
Although the Philippine police and military have not monitored any specific terrorist threat, they deployed more than 6,000 personnel, including snipers and bomb squads backed by a surveillance helicopter and drones, to secure the annual procession of the wooden Black Nazarene along Manila’s streets. More than 600 devotees had been treated mostly for minor injuries, ailments and exhaustion by midday.
Authorities imposed a gun ban and cellphone signals were jammed sporadically along the vicinity of the procession. Concrete barriers blocked the procession route partly to prevent the kind of attacks that have been witnessed in Europe, where Islamic radicals have rammed vehicles into crowds, a military official said.
Hundreds of local and foreign militants laid siege for five months last year in southern Marawi city, leaving more than 1,100 combatants and civilians dead in the worst IS group-linked attack so far in Asia. Troops crushed the uprising in October, but an unspecified number of extremists managed to escape and other small but brutal groups in the country’s south still pose threats.
Security officials said they were also concerned with possible stampedes in a dawn-to-midnight event that some say could draw millions, although it’s difficult even to approximate the crowd size.
Devotees jostled dangerously around a carriage carrying the life-size statue and threw small towels at volunteers on the carriage to wipe parts of the cross and the statue in the belief that the Nazarene’s mystical powers will cure ailments, foster good health and fortune.
Ronald Malaguinio, a 38-year-old worker, carried a small replica of the Nazarene on a steel platform bedecked with yellow and white flowers for several kilometers (miles) from his home in Manila’s Tondo slum district to join the procession and pray for a son recovering from a heart ailment.
“If the doctor says your son has a 50-50 chance of surviving, where will you go?” Malaguinio asked. “If money can’t cure diseases, the only other option is prayers. Ours have been heard and we’re here to thank the Nazarene.”
Another devotee, Jeffrey Nolasco, said he joined the procession for the fifth year in a row to pray that his four children would finish school, his impoverished family could eat three times a day, and he could overcome a bad habit.
“I’m a drunkard,” said Nolasco, who walked barefoot on the hot pavement and carried a small statue of the cross-carrying Nazarene.
The life-size statue, crowned with thorns and bearing a cross, 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 mystical 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 to emulate Christ’s suffering that draws huge crowds each year.
AP photographers Bullit Marquez and Aaron Favila and videojournalist Joeal Calupitan contributed to this report.