Zealots scramble for statue in Manila hoping for miracle

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Devotees carry the statue of the Black Nazarene to the carriage at the start of the annual religious procession in Manila on Wednesday. NOEL CELIS/AFP

Throngs of believers flung themselves at a historic statue of Jesus Christ as it was paraded through the Philippine capital on Wednesday in an annual festival that is one of the world’s biggest shows of Catholic zeal.

Many in the heaving crowd of men and women, which police said numbered more than a million, believe touching the Black Nazarene or being in its presence can heal the sick or grant good fortune.

Devotees massed before dawn to catch a glimpse of the life-sized statue as it was wheeled on a metal float along a 7km route through Manila’s narrow streets by a crew tugging thick ropes.

“I survived a stroke because of him [God]. I will do this every year until I am 100 years old,” said 70-year-old Joaquin Bordado, who has attended the procession for decades.

“God ordered me to do this and I feel no exhaustion,” he added, wearing an ankle-length robe and crown of barbed wire.

Around him people chanted “Viva Nazareno!” (Long live Nazarene!), cheered and jostled for a glimpse of, or selfie with, the cross-bearing statue, cloaked in a maroon robe and topped with a crown of thorns.

‘A rhythm of peace’

Believers, barefoot as a sign of penitence, scramble over one another to touch towels to the icon which is named for its charred appearance.

It is believed to have survived a fire in the 17th century while en route to the Philippines, which became Asia’s bastion of Catholicism under 400 years as a Spanish colony.

Philippine police chief Oscar Albayalde said he deployed more than 7,000 officers to guard the event, while mobile phone networks were cut off as precaution against remotely detonated bombs.

Authorities did not report any specific threat to the procession, but the nation is home to several active insurgencies that have carried out attacks on civilians.

By early afternoon, nearly halfway into the typically 20-hour procession, the Red Cross had already treated nearly 220 patients for cuts, dizziness, bruises and sprains. Every year hundreds are hurt and a few deaths are not unusual.

“It is so dangerous to join the procession. If you see people charging forward, this makes me nervous,” said 21-year-old college student Angelica Alcantara.

“Many young people do this for fun but this is about your faith in God,” she added.

Critics say the procession is a mish-mash of superstition and unnecessary risk for the people who flock to it each year.

But Church officials say the practice is a vibrant expression of faith in a nation of 105 million that is overwhelmingly Christian. They include more than 80 million Catholics.

“If you are an outsider, you will not hear, see or feel that faith. You will only see a very unruly or chaotic situation,” said Father Danichi Hui, a priest at the procession’s destination, Quiapo church.

“But inside there is a rhythm of peace. There is a serenity,” he said.