Sea of Devotees in Manila As Millions Try to Touch Black Jesus Christ Statue

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Sea of Devotees in Manila As Millions Try to Touch Black Jesus Christ Statue Noel Celis/AFP

A sea of people dressed in yellow-and-maroon shirts brought the Philippine capital to a standstill as they tried to touch or kiss a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ believed to have healing powers.

The length of the parade through Manila is less than 4 miles, but the entire route is so crowded it is expected to take about 20 hours. Around 5 million Catholics are expected to attend the procession.

Some managed to clamber onto the carriage bearing the life-sized image of the "Black Nazarene," while others threw towels to the people on the carriage so that they could wipe them on the statue for them. A Reuters journalist reported that people even jostled to touch the ropes pulling the carriage, "believing the slightest touch would bless and heal their illnesses."

Hundreds of devotees are treated every year, mostly for minor injuries or heat exhaustion. Temperatures are expected to reach 86F (30C) today. Devotees have died in the crush in previous years.

The statue depicts Christ, crowned with thorns, carrying the cross on the way to his Crucifixion. Most devotees taking part in the procession walk barefoot in tribute.

The statue was carved in Mexico and brought to the Philippines in the 1600s when it was a Spanish colony. Mystery surrounds the statue's color; one popular myth is that the ship carrying it caught fire, but the charred statue survived.

"Actually, the Black Nazarene has been black from the very beginning," a theologian told CNN Philippines. Msgr. Sabino Vengco, from the Loyola School of Theology of the Ateneo de Manila University, flew to Mexico to conduct research on old religious icons in the Philippines. Vengco explained that the image was sculpted from mesquite wood, which is black to the core.

The statue paraded in the streets today is a replica, as the original statue was damaged and is now preserved in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. The statue of the Black Nazarene is also brought out in public on New Year's Day and Good Friday. But the January 9 parade—known as the Traslacion, meaning Transfer—is the largest, attracting millions.

The Philippines is known for its unique brand of Catholicism, which includes folk superstitions and colorful religious rituals. Dozens of Filipinos have themselves nailed to crosses on Good Friday to emulate Christ's suffering.

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Ted Aljibe/AFP

The start of the annual religious procession in honor of the Black Nazarene.

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Ted Aljibe/AFP

Catholic devotees suround the statue of the Black Nazarene at the start of the annual religious procession.

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Noel Celis/AFP

Devotees carry the statue of the Black Nazarene across a bridge in Manila.

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Noel Celis/AFP

Police boats patrol the water as devotees carry the statue of the Black Nazarene across a bridge.

Ted Aljibe/AFP

Catholic devotees jostle to touch the ropes connected to the carriage of the Black Nazarene statue.

Ted Aljibe/AFP

Catholic devotees react as they try to push through the corwds surrounding the carriage.

Richard James Mendoza/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Devotees try to hold on to the cross of the Black Nazarene statue during the icon's annual religious procession in Manila.

Ted Aljibe/AFP

Catholic devotees jostle with each other as they try to touch the Black Nazarene statue as it is transported through Manila on a carriage.