MANILA (AFP) - Barefoot men and women praying for miracles hurled themselves above mammoth crowds in the Philippines on Saturday (Jan 9) to touch a religious icon in a frenzied Catholic parade that rescue workers said left one person dead.
Fervent scenes of devotion played out as a life-sized statue of Jesus Christ, called the Black Nazarene, was wheeled through Manila’s narrow streets, home to one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.
Risking life and limb, shoeless men and women chanting “Viva!” (Long Live) ran over heads and shoulders to touch the statue, with white handkerchiefs or towels.
“If family members get sick we would give them sponge baths with it (the towel or handkerchief). That way we wouldn’t spend money on doctors,” said Ms Dang Villacorta, 36, wife of a Manila office messenger.
Beach tents mushroomed at a seaside park overnight on Friday as pilgrims, some sprawled on the grass on plastic ground sheets, waited for the parade to begin at daybreak.
“The Nazarene our Lord gave meaning to my life,” Mr Nino Barbo, a 30-year-old high school dropout with an upper arm tattoo and a metal earring told AFP.
The construction worker said he gave up a day’s pay for the sixth year in a row by skipping work to touch the statue, which many Filipinos believe can heal the sick and bring good luck.
One of those seen rushing the icon-bearing float was a man holding aloft a baby.
Pilgrims jostled for position to shoulder lengths of rope to win the the honour of pulling the float forward.
Police said about 1.5 million people took part in the seven-kilometre parade, which runs from the park to the icon’s home inside the downtown Quiapo church.
The parade is expected to continue until midnight (1600 GMT).
A 27-year-old male participant lost consciousness as the tropical sun bore down on the procession just before noon, Philippine Red Cross secretary-general Gwendolyn Pang told AFP.
“They (Red Cross doctors on the scene) could not revive him anymore and he was declared dead,” she added.
The Red Cross said about 220 people were treated for wounds, dizziness, and symptoms associated with low blood sugar, with 18 requiring hospitalisation.
Critics contend that the parade is idolatrous, but Church authorities say it is a vibrant expression of faith in one of the world’s most fervently Catholic nations.
More than 80 million of the Asian nation’s 100 million people consider themselves Catholics.
“The people reach out to it (the icon) because they have a personal relationship with God,” said Monsignor Hernando Coronel, the parish priest of Quiapo.
“They come to me and say the Lord has performed miracles for them. To the devotees he is for real,” he told reporters earlier in the week.
Monsignor Coronel said a male member of his parish who regularly joins the annual parade told him his son regained his full sight after being accidentally shot in an eye with a shotgun pellet.
A woman member also told him her granddaughter miraculously revived after drowning.
Crowned with thorns and bearing a cross, the Nazarene statue was brought to Manila by Augustinian priests in 1607, early on in Spain’s 400-year colonial rule.
It is believed by some to have been partially burnt and blackened when the galleon carrying it caught fire on a voyage from Mexico, another Spanish colony at the time.