Millions of barefoot devotees on Monday joined the largest religious event in the Philippines to honour a centuries-old statue of Jesus Christ despite warnings that Islamist extremists might attack the gathering.
Thousands of police officers and soldiers were deployed to guard the feast of the Black Nazarene in central Manila, the highlight of which is a day-long procession that traverses nearly 6 kilometres.
The US, Britain and Australia warned their citizens to stay away from the procession after authorities said extremists who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State might retaliate for the killing of a leader last week.
The threat, however, did not stop the huge crowd of people from coming out into the streets to offer prayers to the Black Nazarene, which is believed to be miraculous.
“The Poon will protect us,” said Eric Salazar, 46, referring to the Black Nazarene with the name used by devotees. “He will not allow anything bad to happen to us because of our devotion.”
Salazar, who has been a devotee since he was a child, came to the procession with more than a dozen neighbours.
Devotees, mostly wearing maroon and yellow t-shirts, waved towels and handkerchiefs as the statue passed by. Many rushed to the carriage, pushing and shoving other people to touch the rope attached to it or to get a chance to climb and kiss the statue.
Some participants even stayed overnight in a Manila park where the Black Nazarene statue was displayed since Sunday to allow devotees to kiss it and wipe their towels or handkerchiefs on it.
More than 100 people were treated for wounds on their feet, high blood pressure, fainting and other injuries in the first five hours of the procession, according to Red Cross Philippines.
Organizers said they expected up to 17 million people to attend the procession from Luneta Park to the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in the district of Quiapo, and other activities.
Last year, two people died when they suffered a heart attack and seizures during the procession, while more than 1,200 were treated for other injuries.
The procession lasted for 20 hours in 2016, but organizers are hoping that it would be faster this year.
President Rodrigo Duterte hailed the “phenomenal expression of faith” of the devotees of the Black Nazarene, noting, “Good fortunes are usually borne out of hard work and perseverance.”
“Prayers are likely answered because we do not give up or get tired from asking God for the fulfillment of our heart’s desires,” he said in a statement.
“We are neither exhausted by praying constantly nor do we ever falter in expressing our religious fervor,” he added.
The wooden statue of Jesus Christ, crowned with thorns and bearing a cross, is believed to have been brought from Mexico to Manila in 1606 by Spanish missionaries.
The ship that carried it caught fire, but the charred statue survived and was named the Black Nazarene.