Thousands of Catholic pilgrims gathered in the Philippine capital on Saturday to pay homage to the Black Nazarene statue of Jesus Christ, as health restrictions due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic significantly curtailed the attendance to the event.
Known by its Spanish term, “Translacion”, the annual procession in Manila is considered as one of the world’s biggest shows of Catholic devotion, attracting more than a million people.
But all that has changed this year due to COVID-19, which has so far infected more than 500,000 Filipinos and claimed the lives of almost 10,000 others.
The faithful, wearing mostly red and maroon shirts, gathered before dawn on Saturday to catch a glimpse of the statue as it was wheeled on a metal float around Manila.
[7:30AM] Devotees observe physical distancing as they hear Mass along Quezon Boulevard in Quiapo, Manila on the feast of the Black Nazarene Saturday. | via George Calvelo #Nazareno2021 pic.twitter.com/XzYKNUVR68
— ABS-CBN News Channel (@ANCALERTS) January 8, 2021
This year, authorities have prohibited the pilgrims from attending the religious gathering barefoot – a tradition in previous years. Devotees are also prohibited from carrying backpacks, and are only allowed to carry transparent water bottles.
Inside the Quiapo church, only 400 people were allowed at a time to attend the hourly service, and they are required to wear face masks and face shields.
As of 6am local time (22:00 GMT Friday), reports say at least 20,000 people have gathered in the city’s Quiapo district.
Police have set up barricades around the church, where the religious icon is kept, to keep people from getting too close to the procession.
But ABS-CBN news website later reported that social distancing protocols were not properly followed, as the crowd began to converge closer to get the image of Christ.
Pilgrims believe that touching the image of the Black Nazarene, or simply being in its presence, can heal the sick or deliver good fortune.
The charred statue is believed to have survived a fire in the 17th century while on its way to the Philippines, which became Asia’s bastion of Catholicism during 400 years as a Spanish colony.
Critics said the procession, which usually takes about 20 hours, is a mixture of superstition and unnecessary risk for participants.
But Church officials say the practice is a vibrant expression of faith in an overwhelmingly Christian nation of more than 105 million.
Thousands of Nazarene pilgrims flock to Manila amid COVID worries The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Al Jazeera.