MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A massive crowd of mostly barefoot Filipino Catholics joined an annual procession of a centuries-old statue of Jesus Christ held Monday under tight security due to fears of possible retaliation for the killing of an Islamic extremist.
The U.S. and British embassies asked their citizens to take precautions, and the police warned that local Muslim militants trying to align themselves with the Islamic State group may try to attack the procession of the wooden Black Nazarene along Manila's streets.
National police chief Ronald Dela Rosa said authorities have not monitored any specific threat but warned that followers of the extremist leader killed last week may retaliate by attacking the procession.
Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, who led a small but violent Islamic group called Ansar Al Khilafah Philippines, died in a gunbattle with police Thursday in Sarangani province in the country's south. Three of his companions were captured.
On Saturday, an unidentified foreigner linked to Maguid's group and a Filipina were killed when they allegedly tried to lob a grenade at policemen to evade arrest in Sarangani. Maguid's group has been linked to a failed plot to bomb Rizal Park and the nearby U.S. Embassy in Manila in November.
Authorities have imposed a gun ban, prohibited drones and backpacks, and jammed cellphone signals along the vicinity of the procession, which was guarded by thousands of police and troops. Snipers kept watch from atop buildings.
Metropolitan Manila police estimated about 1.4 million people participated in the raucous procession of the lifesize statue carrying a cross. It was not possible to confirm the crowd estimate independently as huge groups joined or left as the procession advanced slowly.
Devotees jostled around a carriage carrying the statue and threw small towels at volunteers on the carriage to wipe parts of the cross and the statue in the belief that the Nazarene's mystical powers to cure ailments and provide good health and fortune will rub off on them.
Benjamin Tayzon, a 64-year-old businessman, brought some of his children and grandchildren, to one of Asia's largest religious gatherings, although he lost two toes in 1990 when the wheels of the carriage of the Black Nazarene ran over his left foot. He said it may have been God's way of telling him that he has committed too many sins.
"It's a remembrance, like a tattoo that can never be erased," Tayzon told The Associated Press as he walked barefoot, carrying a small replica of the statue on his head.
Others came to pray for sick loved ones like Jenny Benedicto, whose 4-year-old son is afflicted by a lung ailment. Benedicto struggled to get close to touch the statue with a towel in the hope that the cloth can help heal her son if she wiped it on him. She got pinned by the mammoth crowd, however, and fainted in the chaos, she told The AP in a first-aid station.
More than 1,000 devotees were treated by Red Cross volunteers for minor ailments.
Joanne Noel, a 55-year-old teacher from Luxembourg, snapped pictures of the swarms of elderly and young devotees, saying she hasn't seen such a huge turnout for a religious event in Europe, where attendance in churches has declined.
"I'm very impressed," she said. "They need to hope about something because life is very hard for these people."
The lifesize statue, 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. Some believe the statue's endurance, from fires and earthquakes through the centuries, and intense bombings during World War II, is a testament to its mystical powers.
The spectacle reflects the unique brand of Catholicism, which includes folk superstitions, in Asia's largest Catholic nation. Dozens of Filipinos have themselves nailed to crosses on Good Friday in another tradition to emulate Christ's suffering that draws huge crowds each year.
AP journalist Joeal Calupitan contributed to this report.