San Fernando – Devotees in the fervently Catholic Philippines were set to nail themselves to crosses and whip their backs bloody on Friday in extreme acts of devotion that attract thousands of spectators.
The annual ritual in scorching hot farmlands just outside of Manila is one of many colourful outpourings of faith in the Southeast Asian nation, where 80 percent of its 100 million people are Catholics.
“I feel no pain because I know I am one with my God in suffering,” 30-year-old construction worker Arjay Rivera told AFP before he slit his back with broken bottles and razors.
Rivera said he would march with a pack of flagellants while whipping his back with bamboo for the eighth straight year on Friday for God to heal his 54-year-old father, who has a hole in his heart.
On his back are deep scars from his annual devotion and a tattoo of his second-born daughter’s name. The child died from pneumonia when she was three years old after she was caught in floodwaters.
“I am doing this for the repose of her soul, and for good health always for my family,” he said.
This year, more than a dozen people are scheduled to have nails driven through their palms as they hang on the cross in the rural San Pedro Cutud district within the city of San Fernando and neighbouring towns.
Some of these men have undergone multiple crucifixions over the years, all in fulfillment of a promise they made to God in exchange for a favour.
San Fernando Archbishop Florentino Lavarias has discouraged the bloody practice, saying there were other ways to profess one’s faith aside from self-inflicted pain.
“Our acts should be geared toward good works. Christian life is not something that is done overnight,” he counseled.
San Fernando Mayor Edwin Santiago openly conceded that the religious ritual has vast economic benefits for the community.
He said last year’s Holy Week events drew about 60,000 foreign and local visitors, and he is hoping for more this year.
“We don’t have the exact record of the money that flows into the street but for sure the Good Friday activities help our locals in their businesses,” he said.
Health ministry spokesman Lyndon Lee Suy said the government could not prevent the mass self-mortification, but it was advising all those taking part to get anti-tetanus shots first.
Aside from San Pedro Cutud, five other San Fernando villages were scheduled to reenact Christ’s crucifixion on Friday.
The Philippines is known around the world for its fervent brand of Catholicism, which was introduced by Spanish colonisers in the 1500s.
An annual procession of Christ’s image in downtown Manila drew 5.5 million barefoot devotees last January, authorities said.
A mass by Pope Francis in the capital’s main outdoor park a week after the Black Nazarene procession drew a record crowd of six million people. – AFP