MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Filipino Catholics jammed the streets of the capital Thursday to parade a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ in a raucous annual event that took on a special significance by remembering the victims of a monster typhoon.
About 6,000 police were deployed to secure the massive, daylong pilgrimage — a security nightmare in a country still battling Muslim extremists and widespread crimes. More than 600 devotees, many of whom walked barefoot under the sun, were treated for minor injuries, according to the local Red Cross.
Officials said up to 12 million were expected to join though the figures were difficult to confirm.
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 from fires and earthquakes through the centuries, and intense bombings during World War II, is a testament to its mystical powers.
In 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 disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, which on Nov. 8 killed more than 6,100 people, left nearly 1,800 others missing and displaced more than 4 million mostly poor villagers.
The 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 months later.
Housewife Jackelyn Cometa said she and her husband joined the procession each of the last 12 years to pray for good health and a better life, but she came with a different plea Thursday. Her 2-year-old niece remained missing in the storm while two cousins were killed in her father's hometown of Palo in worst-hit central Leyte province.
"I'm praying that my niece be found, even her body," said Cometa, who lives in a Manila slum.
The Mass at a grandstand abruptly ended when swarms of devotees breached through a security cordon and pushed away iron railings in an attempt to get close to the Black Nazarene, which nearly got knocked down in the melee. Police restored order but several devotees were injured.
Authorities blocked a main road near Manila's City Hall with container vans to prevent participants from passing through a traditional route across a bridge, where cracks have been found. Huge crowds pushed a container van aside, insisting to pass through the old route, prompting officials to deploy riot police to divert the procession away from danger.
The spectacle reflects the country's 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 each year in another tradition to emulate Christ's suffering.
A young French tourist, Jean-Baptiste Guillemot, marveled as thousands of devotees walked barefoot past him, pressing forward to touch, kiss or wipe towels on the Black Nazarene. Others struggled to pull rickety carriages with heavy replicas of the statue.
"This is very powerful," he said. "It's really, really religious ... I didn't know it was this much."
Two years ago, authorities jammed cellphone services and put air force helicopters on standby after President Benigno Aquino III warned that terrorists might target the gathering. No such threat was monitored Thursday.