MANILA, Philippines – Hundreds of thousands of Filipino Catholics began a raucous religious procession in Manila Thursday to honor a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ in an annual event that organizers say was being held partly to pray for the victims of a monster typhoon that devastated the central Philippines last year.
About 6,000 policemen were deployed to secure the massive, daylong pilgrimage, a security nightmare due to the presence of Muslim extremists and widespread crimes in the country. Officials say up to 12 million mostly barefoot devotees may join but such figures are difficult to confirm.
Two years ago authorities deployed a massive police cordon, jammed cellphone services and air force helicopters stood by to secure the event after President Benigno Aquino warned that terrorists might target the event in Asia's largest predominantly Roman Catholic nation. No such threat has been monitored by police ahead of Thursday's procession.
The wooden statue of Christ, 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 and was named the Black Nazarene.
Some believe the statue's survival of fires and earthquakes through the centuries, and intense bombings during World War II, are a testament to its mystical powers.
As the statue is pulled on a carriage through Manila's narrow streets, swarms of worshippers pressed forward to touch, kiss, or wipe handkerchiefs and white towels on the Black Nazarene to atone for sins and pray for special favors, including recovery of sick relatives or a better life.
In a Mass before the start of the procession at Manila's seaside Rizal Park, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle urged nearly half a million devotees to pray for the victims of recent tragic disasters, including Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,100 people, left nearly 1,800 others missing and displaced more than 4 million mostly poor villagers on Nov. 8.
The typhoon's killer wind and tsunami-like storm surges leveled entire villages and damaged or destroyed more than a million houses. Bodies were still being found in mounds of debris two months after Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit.
Thursday's spectacle reflects the country's unique brand of Catholicism that includes folk superstitions. Dozens of Filipinos have themselves nailed to crosses on Good Friday each year in another tradition to remember Christ's suffering.