Thousands of Catholic pilgrims gathered in the Philippine capital on Saturday to pay homage to the Black Nazarene statue of Jesus Christ, as health restrictions due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic significantly curtailed the attendance to the event.
Known by its Spanish term, “Translacion”, the annual procession in Manila is considered as one of the world’s biggest shows of Catholic devotion, attracting more than a million people.
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But all that has changed this year due to COVID-19, which has so far infected more than 500,000 Filipinos and claimed the lives of almost 10,000 others.
The faithful, wearing mostly red and maroon shirts, gathered before dawn on Saturday to catch a glimpse of the statue.
Usually, the statue is paraded around Manila for hours. But due to the pandemic, it is being kept inside the church in Quiapo district.
This is a recipe for a super spreading event and a huge surge. Then a shift to a stricter lockdown in next two weeks. We must think of our COVID crisis. God is omnipresent. God will surely understand if we would stay home. Be safe. https://t.co/bTQrrhLbye
— Tony Leachon MD (@DrTonyLeachon) January 9, 2021
This year, authorities have prohibited the pilgrims from attending the religious gathering barefoot – a tradition in previous years. Devotees are also prohibited from carrying backpacks, and are only allowed to carry transparent water bottles.
Inside the church, only 400 people were allowed at a time to attend the hourly service, and they are required to wear face masks and face shields.
As of 6am local time Saturday (22:00 GMT Friday), reports say at least 20,000 people have gathered in the city’s Quiapo district. The crowd grew to over 22,000 as the day progressed.
Police have set up barricades around the church, where the religious icon is displayed, to keep people from getting too close.
But ABS-CBN news website later reported that social distancing protocols were not properly followed, as the crowd began to converge closer to get a glimpse of the image of Christ.
Dr Tony Leachon, former president of the Philippine College of Physicians, that the violations of health restrictions could be “a recipe for a super spreading event and a huge surge” of Covid cases.
“God will surely understand if we would stay home,” he wrote on social media.
Pilgrims believe that touching the image of the Black Nazarene, or simply being in its presence, can heal the sick or deliver good fortune.
The charred statue is believed to have survived a fire in the 17th century while on its way to the Philippines, which became Asia’s bastion of Catholicism during 400 years as a Spanish colony.
Critics said the event, which usually takes about 20 hours, is a mixture of superstition and unnecessary risk for participants.
But Church officials say the practice is a vibrant expression of faith in an overwhelmingly Christian nation of more than 105 million.