SAN PEDRO CUTUD, Philippines – At least 24 Filipinos were nailed to crosses to re-enact Jesus Christ's suffering in a Good Friday rite rejected by Catholic church leaders but witnessed by throngs of believers and thousands of tourists.
Ruben Enaje, a 50-year-old sign painter, screamed in pain as villagers dressed as Roman centurions hammered four-inch stainless steel nails through his palms and set him aloft on a cross under a brutal sun for a few minutes in San Pedro Cutud village in Pampanga province.
Twenty-three other Filipino men were nailed to crosses in the rice-growing province, officials said.
It was Enaje's 25th crucifixion. He says surviving nearly unscathed when he fell from a three-story building in 1985 prompted him to undergo the annual ordeal. Aside from thanking God, Enaje now prays for more painting jobs.
"Not a bone in my body was broken when I fell from that building," Enaje said. "It was a miracle."
"Now, I'm praying for good health and more clients," Enaje told The Associated Press.
Ahead of the cross nailings, throngs of penitents walked several miles (kilometers) through village streets and beat their bare backs with sharp bamboo sticks and pieces of wood, sometimes splashing spectators with blood. Some participants opened cuts in the penitents' backs using broken glass to ensure the ritual was sufficiently bloody.
The gory spectacle reflects the Philippines' unique brand of Catholicism, which merges church traditions with folk superstitions. Many of the mostly impoverished penitents undergo the ritual to atone for sins, pray for the sick or a better life and give thanks for what they believe were God-given miracles.
The most number of crucifixions were staged beside a rice field in San Pedro Cutud, where 15 men were nailed to crosses three at a time on a dusty mound as more than 30,000 people, including three European ambassadors, watched and snapped pictures. An ambulance stood by and more than 20 tourists fainted or became dizzy in the heat, officials said.
Amid the festive air -- villagers peddled bottled water, food and religious items everywhere -- police and marshals kept order. Some displayed banners with a reminder: "Silence please and take care of your belongings."
Foreigners have been banned from taking part after an Australian comic was nailed to a cross under a false name a few years ago near Pampanga. Authorities also believe that a Japanese man sought to be crucified as part of a porn film in 1996, tourism officer Ching Pangilinan said.
"They made a mockery out of a local tradition," she said.
Church leaders in the Philippines, Asia's largest predominantly Roman Catholic nation, have frowned on the Easter week rituals, saying Filipinos can show their deep faith without hurting themselves.
Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, based in Iloilo province, said the crucifixions and self-flagellations are an "imperfect imitation with doubtful theological and social significance," adding that only Jesus Christ's death saved mankind.
Pampanga Bishop Pablo Virgilio David said the bloody rites reflect the church's failure to fully educate many Filipinos on Christian tenets.
Enaje and the other penitents said the church should respect their belief.
"When I'm up there on the cross, I feel very close to God," Enaje said. "We grew up with this tradition and nothing can stop us."
Red Cross officials urged devotees to consider other forms of penance, including donating blood,and expressed concern over possible health problems such as infection, heat stroke, blood loss and even death from the beating.
San Pedro Cutud village leader Remigio dela Cruz said no penitent has experienced any major health problem since the cross nailings began there in the 1950s. The nails are soaked in alcohol for as long as a year and then sprinkled with holy water before use, he said.