By Jason Gutierrez
MANILA, January 9, 2014 (AFP) – Millions of barefoot devotees packed the Philippine capital’s streets Thursday for one of the world’s biggest Catholic parades, honoring an ancient statue of Jesus Christ they believe has miraculous powers.
Chanting “Viva, Viva Senor Nazareno! (Long Live Mister Nazarene)”, frenzied pilgrims climbed over one another in the suffocating heat to touch the Black Nazarene during the ebony-hued wooden statue’s slow procession.
“This has been a family tradition for years, and the Nazarene has given us many blessings over the years,” housewife Josephine Manalastas told AFP after she and her 80-year-old mother were pulled out by medics from beneath the surging crowd.
They were taken to an ambulance for treatment after a section of the crowd stampeded over a steel barrier protecting the statue’s carriage, shortly before the parade began at Manila’s largest park in the morning.
Medics said the two were uninjured. But by mid-afternoon police said 879 people had been treated for various injuries as the life-sized, 406-year-old icon was borne towards its home in a central Manila church.
Church organizers said one person suffered a stroke.
Large numbers of police were mustered to help maintain order along the six-kilometer (four-mile) route, but the procession was crawling so slowly that just over a third of the distance had been covered as dusk fell.
As of midday organizers said this year’s crowd outnumbered the estimated nine million who attended last year, although the number could not be independently verified.
Devotees climbed on each other’s shoulders to kiss the statue or wipe it with white towels and handkerchiefs.
Others fought over a pair of thick lengths of rope that the pilgrims used to pull the carriage.
In scenes reminiscent of a rock concert mosh pit, one determined woman surfed the crowd to reach the icon, only to fall back and sink into the sea of humanity afterwards.
More than 80 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people are Catholic, a legacy of four centuries of Spanish colonial rule, making it Asia’s main bastion of the faith.
The country is deeply religious, but Thursday’s march through Manila’s old quarter – the biggest religious event in the country – represents one of its more extreme forms of veneration.
The Philippines also ceremonially crucifies more than a dozen devotees every Good Friday.
Cloaked in a maroon robe and crowned with thorns while bearing a cross, the Nazarene statue was first brought to Manila by Augustinian priests from Mexico in 1607, decades after the start of Spain’s rule.
It was believed to have acquired its colour after it was partially burnt when the galleon carrying it caught fire.
Many Filipinos believe the icon is miraculous and that by joining the procession, barefoot as a mark of humility, their prayers will be answered.
Manila labourer Wilson Faculto said he and his childless wife of 15 years were gifted with a baby last December, five years after they began joining the annual procession.
“A woman we didn’t know gave us her baby for adoption, and walked away,” he said, cradling the two-month-old in his arms.
“This boy is our Nazarene miracle.”
The Faculto clan camped out in the park two days before the parade, sleeping on the grass and ignoring the foul smell from overflowing portable toilets nearby.
In a daybreak mass at the park, Manila’s archbishop, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, asked the pilgrims to pray for the victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan which pummeled the country in November, leaving nearly 8,000 dead or missing.
“Those who do not forget God also do not forget his fellow man,” he said. “Let us not be ashamed to proclaim our love for Jesus.”
The message was not lost on security guard Efren Delantar, who lost relatives to the typhoon.
“They are no longer with us, but we are asking for special intercession for them,” he said.
“I know that wish has been granted. They are all in heaven.”