MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A massive crowd of mostly barefoot Filipino Catholics joined a raucous procession of a centuries-old life-size statue of Jesus Christ under extra-tight security Tuesday after the Philippines came under a disastrous militant attack last year.
Although the Philippine police and military said they have not monitored any specific 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. By nightfall, nearly 1,000 devotees had been treated by Red Cross volunteers, mostly for minor injuries and ailments and exhaustion.
Authorities imposed a gun ban, cellphone signals were jammed sporadically in the vicinity of the procession and a team of bomb experts walked sniffer dogs along the route ahead of the crowd. Concrete barriers blocked the 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 to 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.
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Security officials said they were also concerned with possible stampedes in a dawn-to-midnight event that national police chief Ronald dela Rosa said drew about 2.6 million devotees. It’s unclear how the police came up with the crowd estimate given that people joined and left the procession constantly.
Mobs of devotees in maroon shirts dangerously squeezed their way into the tight pack of humanity around a carriage carrying the Jesus statue. They threw small towels at volunteers on the carriage, which was being pulled by ropes, to wipe parts of the cross and the statue in the belief that the Nazarene’s powers would cure ailments and 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 will 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.
Jim Coffin, an anthropology professor from Muncie, Indiana, said he and his wife flew in as tourists and were “absolutely moved” by the massive but peaceful procession and display of religious faith by the devotees, many of them poor.
“We watched them as they threw towels on the statue and rubbed it on their bodies,” Coffin said as the procession inched its way nearby. “If the people in power appreciate how bad off the people are and they truly want to better their lives, the people in power have got to be moved by this.”
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 to emulate Christ’s suffering that draws huge crowds each year.
AP journalists Bullit Marquez, Aaron Favila and Joeal Calupitan contributed to this report.