Barefoot hordes in spectacular Philippine Catholic parade
MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - Millions of barefoot devotees packed the streets of the Philippine capital Manila Thursday for one of the world's biggest Catholic parades, honoring a statue of Jesus Christ they believe has miraculous powers.
Braving the suffocating heat, pilgrims clambered over one another to touch the Black Nazarene during the ebony-hued wooden statue's slow procession from Manila's main park to a historic church.
"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 survived being trampled by the surging crowd.
Mother and daughter were taken to an ambulance nearby for treatment after a section of the crowd at the park stampeded over a steel barrier protecting the statue's carriage. Medical staff said they were uninjured.
Large numbers of police were mustered to help maintain order along the six-kilometer (four-mile) route, but organizers said at least 300 devotees were injured, and one person suffered a potentially fatal stroke.
Schools declared a holiday and police estimated hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had turned up by sunrise.
Hours later, church organizers said this year's crowd had outnumbered the estimated nine million who attended last year, although the number could not be independently verified.
As the procession got underway, 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 afterwards and be swallowed up by the massive sea of humanity.
For heavily pregnant housewife Kaye Morales, 32, the procession was her way of thanking God after her teenage son survived being pinned under a collapsing glass wall at a shopping mall last year.
Morales, who is seven months' pregnant, traveled to Manila from a nearby town and queued for hours to kiss the feet of the statue.
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 -- is an extreme form of veneration.
The life-sized statue was brought to Manila by Augustinian priests from Mexico in 1607, decades after the start of colonial rule.
It was believed to have acquired its color 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 laborer Wilson Faculto said he and his wife of 15 years had failed to have a child.
But after first joining the annual procession five years ago, they were given a baby in December.
"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 for two days to be among the first to touch the statue. They slept on the grass, ignoring the foul smell from overflowing portable toilets nearby.
In a daybreak mass at the site, 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."