Philippines | Catholics pray for Mideast peace in huge gathering

A mammoth crowd of mostly barefoot Filipino Catholics prayed for peace in the Middle East yesterday at the start of an annual procession of a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ in one of Asia’s biggest religious events.
The daylong procession of the wooden Black Nazarene draws massive numbers of largely poor devotees who pray for the sick and a better life. This year, widespread fears over the conflict between the United States and Iran were highlighted in a predawn Mass.
“Let us remember that in other parts of the world, the threat of violence is brewing and, hopefully, this will not lead to war,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle told the crowd at a Manila seaside park.
The popular Manila church leader asked the tens of thousands of devotees clad in maroon shirts — the color associated with the Black Nazarene — to briefly pause in silence and pray for peace in the Middle East and the safety of its people, including many Filipino expatriate workers.
“Let us pray […] that the desire to retaliate eases,” Tagle said.
One of the world’s leading labor providers, the Philippines would face a gargantuan crisis if hostilities between the U.S. and Iran escalate and embroil other countries that host many Filipinos, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The Philippine government on Wednesday ordered Filipino workers to leave Iraq and Iran. The military prepared to deploy navy ships, three cargo planes and one battalion each of marines and army troops to help the evacuations in case hostilities worsen.
Organizers of the Black Nazarene procession expect up to 4 million people to join the procession, which usually ends late at night when the life-size statue of Christ is returned to a church in downtown Manila.
More than 12,000 police, including bomb squads, snipers and helicopter-borne teams, were deployed to secure the procession, though authorities said they have not monitored any specific threat.
Aside from ensuring safety and order, police worked to clear the streets in front of the carriage bearing the statue. Guns and liquor were banned and cellphone signals were jammed in parts of Manila.
Devotees who were pushed back when they tried to touch the statue complained, but despite the security and the tropical heat, mobs of people dangerously squeezed into a tight pack of humanity around the carriage. They threw small towels at volunteers on the carriage for them to wipe parts of the statue and toss the towels back, believing the Nazarene’s powers can cure ailments and do other miracles.
Dozens of people fainted or sustained injuries and were carried away on stretchers by Red Cross volunteers. Jim Gomez, Manila, AP

Categories Asia-Pacific