MANILA — Thousands of Catholic devotees observed physical distancing as they queued for Saturday morning masses in the Philippine capital to celebrate a centuries-old black wooden statue of Jesus Christ believed to bring miracles to the faithful.
With the coronavirus pandemic afflicting the country, authorities canceled an annual procession of the life-sized image of the “Black Nazarene”, the country’s largest religious event that draws millions of devotees in an annual ritual observed for 200 years.
Instead, church leaders organized 15 masses at Manila’s Quiapo church, which houses the life-sized statue, and live-streamed the worship services, pleading for devotees not to flock into the basilica.
“I am not afraid to go here even with the risk of COVID-19 because I have faith in Jesus the Nazarene. Every year, every week I go to church,” Arjay Echon, 29, a supermarket employee and a devotee for seven years, told Reuters.
Echon, wearing face mask and shield while carrying a small replica of the “Black Nazarene”, said he is praying for the pandemic to end.
Police estimated a crowd of nearly 23,000 as of Saturday morning.
People in the queue, reminded by volunteers to practice one-metre (one-yard) physical distancing, were required to fill out contact tracing forms. Inside the church, devotees were disinfected before receiving communion.
About 80% of the country’s 108 million people identify as Roman Catholic, a legacy of hundreds of years as a Spanish colony.
“People were patiently in queue, waiting for their turn to get inside the church,” Father Douglas Badong, parochial vicar, told DZBB radio station.
In contrast, the canceled annual procession of the statue depicting Jesus shouldering a heavy cross usually draws millions of devotees, many barefoot and jostling to get close and touch the image. Two people were killed and more than 1,200 people suffered minor injuries in the dusk-to-dawn procession in 2016.
It is not known why the statue, which was carved in Mexico and brought to the Philippines in the early 17th century, turned black.
With more than 483,000 cases and 9,300 deaths, the Philippines has the second-highest COVID-19 cases and casualties in Southeast Asia, behind Indonesia.
“My personal prayer is good health for my family…I pray for a better Philippines this 2021 and for COVID-19 to end,” Prubancio Sarasin, 56, a security guard and devotee for 15 years, told Reuters.
Reporting by Adrian Portugal and Eloisa Lopez; Writing by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Lincoln Feast; Reuters