PHILIPPINE NEWS, MANILA – Two people died and almost 1,000 were injured on Friday, when up to 1 million Filipinos packed the streets of Manila trying to get close to the Black Nazarene, a centuries-old statue of Jesus Christ. Authorities in Manila saw the annual festival as a dry run for the much larger crowds expected for the visit of Pope Francis, January 15-19th.
For over 20 hours, the huge crowds swarmed around the carriage carrying the wooden Black Nazarene – a statue of Christ kneeling with a cross on its shoulder, believed to have been brought from Mexico to Manila by Spanish missionaries in 1606. The faithful jostled to get as close as possible in order to throw small towels to volunteers on the carriage. The towels are used to wipe parts of the cross and the statue, believing that the Nazarene’s powers to cure sickness and provide good health and fortune, will rub off on them.
Tragically, in the midst of the hectic procession, one volunteer accompanying the statue died of a heart attack. Another man was found lifeless on the ground, apparently crushed by the crowd at dawn on Saturday as it surged towards the Quiapo Church, said Francis Tolentino, chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.
Almost 1,000 other devotees were treated for cuts, bruises, dizziness and hypertension, said the secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross, Gwen Pang.
The government viewed Friday’s procession as an opportunity to practice for the visit of Pope Francis to Manila next week, which could attract up to 6 million people and will be secured by 25,000 police and soldiers.
“But with 25,000 against 6 million, the government cannot do it alone,” President Aquino told reporters Friday. “So we want to repeat this message: with cooperation from the church and various groups and the private sector, we will be able to achieve our goal of a peaceful and meaningful visit by the pope.”
Police Senior Superintendent Jigs Coronel said they were able to test security plans, crowd control, anti-crime measures, and emergency and medical response. About 5,000 police were deployed around the procession, with 1,000 military personnel on standby, he said.
The Black Nazarene gained its name as a result of a fire on the Spanish ship carrying the wooden statue, charring it black. Some believe that the statue is endowed with powers to withstand fires, earthquakes and even the bombings of World War II.