Paganism in Catholic Philippines

High above modern Philippine cities, an ancient tribe preserves its religious and cultural traditions.


Banaue, Philippines - Pope Francis arrives on Thursday in the Philippines - a country with the third-largest Catholic population in the world - marking the first time in 20 years the leader of the Catholic Church visits the island-nation of 100 million people.

Catholicism has flourished here since Spanish colonists arrived in 1521, but on northern Luzon island - where the sky meets rice terraces 1,500m above sea level - former headhunting tribes have lived uninterrupted by outsiders for at least 2,000 years. They even defied the Spanish conquistadors who ruled the Philippines for 300 years until 1898.

Among those tribes are the Ifugao of Banaue. In the village of Batad, declared a UNESCO-protected site in 1995, the natives have painstakingly guarded most of their traditions, despite steady modernisation in the rest of the country. Thanks to their remote location, the Ifugao have managed to hold off the influence of Christian lowlanders for centuries, along with their ways. 

Over the years, however, Catholicism - along with visible signs of modernity such as tin roofs and TV antennae - breached these mountains, and younger Ifugao have left in search of formal education and better jobs.

But traditional beliefs and practices continue to prevail. The ancient God of Harvest still looms large, and Ifugao agricultural practices remain guided by lunar patterns, organic planting, and an extensive irrigation system that rivals ancient Persian and Egyptian engineering.

Orlando Addug, an Ifugao businessman, said growing up he saw how "progress" - as well as Catholic influence - reshaped his community. While many have converted to Christianity, pagan customs still thrive, including the sacrifice of dozens of cows and pigs to the gods at wedding celebrations.   

"It is only now that I am older that I realised how important it is to hold on to our past," Addug told Al Jazeera.

Photos by Al Jazeera's Ted Regencia