MANILA, Philippines (Jan 10, 2012) - In spite of a previous government's warning of a possible terrorist attack, a sea of devotees took to the streets of Manila yesterday to join the biggest and longest religious procession in the country.
A massive crowd trooped to the Quirino Grandstand in morning to attend a Mass and participate in this year’s celebration of the Feast of the Black Nazarene, before the procession crawled toward the Quiapo Minor Basilica, where the religious image is housed.
The feast of Quiapo is also celebrated in the same day.
Manila Police District (MPD) director Senior Superintendent Alejandro Gutierrez estimated the crowd at Quirino Grandstand to reach nearly a million, 200,000 more than last year’s celebration.
“During the early part of the Mass, there were about 800,000 but as the Mass progressed, it grew to about one million,” Gutierrez said.
Event organizers estimated the turnout at almost nine million throughout the day.
Because of the huge number of people, the Luneta detachment was almost destroyed and several were injured even before the procession could begin.
Despite the usual expected mad rush of devotees to the Quirino Grandstand, which had been converted into an altar, the MPD chief described the morning activity to be generally peaceful and orderly.
Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, the main celebrant in the Eucharistic celebration, admitted that they were concerned with reports of a bomb explosion during the procession but decided to put their faith in the Lord and the authorities.
“Of course we are concerned (with the terror plot). But we trust in the Lord and the concern of the authorities. We would not be happy if there was such a (terrorist attack),” Archbishop Tagle said, expressing gratitude to President Aquino for taking steps to secure the safety of devotees.
The Mass started at about 6:15 a.m. and ended at 7:45 a.m. But a slight commotion occurred before Tagle could officially end the Mass when the devotees started rushing forward in an effort to be first to get hold of the andas (carriage).
Some of the devotees grabbed the Black Nazarene, and in what appeared to be a tug-of-war, the image dangerously tilted to one side.
The steel barriers that separated the crowd from the main altar were toppled as people jostled to get closer to the image, resulting in injuries to several persons, including a young man who managed to reach the cross only to fall head first to the ground.
Quiapo Church rector Monsignor Jose Clemente Ignacio believed that the large crowd at the Quirino Grandstand was a display of their deep devotion to the Black Nazarene, which is believed to have performed miracles and granted prayer requests.
“We should understand what is in the heart of the devotees, understand the depth of their conviction especially now on this day of the translacion… Can fear be removed? One of our leaders gave this beautiful answer that the fear is there but there is also overcoming the fear.”
He said a police officer told him that the Palace’s announcement even draws more Filipinos to display their devotion to the Black Nazarene.
The Quiapo Church rector admitted that up until yesterday morning they were still discussing if they should cancel the Mass and the translacion.
However, they decided to push through with the religious event.
Monsignor Ignacio said that this was not the first time that there was a threat that the procession would be interrupted, but this was the first time that the President himself made the announcement.
Quiapo Church officials, in coordination with concerned government agencies, beefed up security in the area by setting up security cameras, putting additional personnel and deploying more bomb-sniffing dogs.
Telecommunication companies have also disconnected their services in the area to protect the crowd in the event of a terrorist threat.
Cellular phones could be used to remotely detonate an explosive.
Some 17 schools in Manila, mostly along the route of the procession, announced the suspension of classes.
Unmindful of their safety, thousands of devotees coming from various parts of the country and abroad, lined the streets along the route of the procession to have a glimpse of the Black Nazarene.
An undetermined number of government security forces, both in uniform and in civilian clothes, were deployed at strategic locations as a deterrent to criminal elements and possible terror attacks.
“We are now seeing an international pattern of terrorists attacking churches like those in Nigeria,” a senior anti-terrorism official said.
However, he admitted that the government is still validating and confirming the specific groups out to disrupt the religious festivities.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin admitted that the authorities are hunting nine people believed to be involved in planning the attack, and named two well-known Islamic militant groups as possibly being behind the threat.
Sources said authorities scoured suspected hideouts of the terrorists but came up empty.
“This is a great opportunity, this Feast of the Black Nazarene, so we should be alarmed,” Gazmin said.
Maximo Graciano, who had been participating in the procession for the past 15 years, said he jostled among the crowd unmindful of the government’s warning.
“If we allow ourselves to be cowed by terrorism, it means we do not really believe in Him,” said Graciano, who claimed that the icon helped him regain the full use of his right arm after it was severely injured in a car accident.
Thousands of devotees did not heed the appeal of Archbishop Tagle to remain calm and wait for the Mass to finish.
When asked to comment on the unruly behavior of the crowd, Tagle said, “They did not attack. (It is called) approaching the divine. To understand it, you need to be a devotee. The outsiders do not understand.”
Shortly after the image left Quirino Grandstand, the wheel of the carriage broke, bringing the procession to a standstill.
Hundreds were hurt and attended to by Philippine Red Cross (PRC) volunteers and other agencies, but there were discrepancies in the figures, owing to the magnitude of the crowd.
Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chairman Francis Tolentino said most of those reported injured suffered from dizziness, dehydration, chest pain, seizure and high blood pressure.
The PRC reported transporting 13 devotees to the Ospital ng Maynila, Philippine General Hospital and the University of Santo Tomas Hospital.
In all, the Feast of the Black Nazarene went smoothly except for some hitches, like the near lynching of a 16-year-old alleged pickpocket.
The minor was taken to the hospital for stealing at least three cellphones from churchgoers.
The mood was festive with several bands playing in different parts of Quiapo while ambulant vendors made brisk business.
Some groups offered free bottled water and food to tired devotees, leaving behind tons of litter. (From Philstar.com)