The annual festival of the Black Nazarene, underway today in the Philippines, is expected to draw about 15 million people, in what’s seen as a potentially hazardous religious festival, made more dangerous by a possible threat from Islamic extremists.
Masses of barefooted devotees have gathered in Manila today in a bid to touch a centuries-old icon of Jesus Christ, a frenzied annual event that is one of the world’s biggest displays of Catholic devotion.
The life-sized statue is believed by many in Asia’s bastion of Catholicism to have miraculous powers, and more than one million people converged around the procession’s path last year when two people died in the crush.
Devotees attempt to get close enough to the statue as it is paraded on a carriage, then climb on each others’ shoulders to kiss the icon or wipe it with white towels.
Others fight to touch thick lengths of rope that the pilgrims use to pull the statue’s carriage, which passes slowly along Manila’s streets throughout the day before returning to its home in the historic Quiapo church.
Many walk Manila’s hot concrete streets without shoes as a sign of penance and to imitate Jesus carrying the cross barefooted before he was crucified.
The statue is called the Black Nazarene, given its name because of its charred color that is believed to have occurred when it survived a fire aboard a ship when being brought to the Philippines from Mexico in the early 1600s.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who often gives conflicting signals about his religious convictions and criticises the Church’s leaders, nevertheless offered encouragement to those involved in this year‘s procession.
'Prayers are likely answered because we do not give up or get tired from asking God for the fulfillment of our heart’s desires,' Duterte said.
'Such is the phenomenal expression of faith of the millions of devotees in the form of gratitude, petition, and sacrifice shown in the image of the Black Nazarene every feast day on the 9th of January every year.'
This year’s event is being held under the threat of Islamic militant attacks, with authorities reporting more than 5,700 police deployed to provide security.
As part of security measures for the festival, police raided an Islamic center in the heart of Manila on Saturday although they only arrested two people who were found with illegal drugs, police said.