MANILA, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of devotees, many barefooted, joined a chaotic procession in the Philippine capital on Tuesday for a black Jesus Christ statue, in one of the biggest annual religious festivals in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The faithful gathered in downtown Manila to follow a carriage bearing the statue called the Black Nazarene, believed to have healing powers, in a parade that began at dawn and may last until evening or even longer.
Men surrounded the carriage that was pulled by ropes, while the crowd waved towels and handkerchiefs in a sign of praise to the life-sized image of Jesus kneeling with a cross on his shoulder.
Processions and other religious rites were also held elsewhere in the country of 105 million people to celebrate the feast.
Citing police estimates, local media said this year’s festivities may draw 17 million devotees nationwide, some seeking healing for illnesses and forgiveness for sins and others expressing gratitude for blessings.
Around 380,000 people were in the Manila procession, based on an early afternoon estimate by police, excluding those waiting elsewhere along the parade route.
Explaining the strong Filipino devotion, Monsignor Sabino Vengco, a prominent Catholic priest, told CNN Philippines: “People will suffer sickness, old age...so pain and suffering will always be there,” he said.
“There will always be a need for someone, and that is exactly Jesus.”
The Philippine Red Cross said it had assisted more than 600 devotees who were feeling unwell, or suffered injuries during the morning part of the parade as the crowd swelled and many clamoured to reach out towards the icon.
More than 4,000 police and soldiers were deployed to ensure the Manila procession would be peaceful, said Oscar Albayalde, the capital’s police chief. (Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry)