SAN FERNANDO, Philippines - Nearly two dozen Filipinos were nailed to crosses to re-enact the passion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday, in what they see as an extreme display of devotion but which the Roman Catholic Church criticises as a distortion of the Easter message.
The annual ritual draws thousands of spectators to San Fernando, 80 km (50 miles) north of Manila, to see penitents flagellate themselves and a series of crucifixions in area villages, culminating in a recreation of Christ's death.
"I hope the Lord will grant my wish to make me win big in 'jueteng' this year," Alex Laranang, a 55-year-old food vendor who said he can't read or write, told Reuters before two 5-inch nails were driven into his hands on a scorching hot day.
Jueteng is a popular illegal lottery in the Philippines.
Laranang, a father of five, said he had won 3 thousand pesos ($70) twice in the five years he had himself crucified on a cross.
"The first time I was nailed to a cross, I was terrified, but I prayed to Jesus to take the pain. Now, I don't feel anything. It's like getting an injection," he added.
Roli Pantoja, a construction worker, said he felt much better after getting down from a wooden cross. This was his sixth crucifixion.
"I feel very fresh, like a new-born baby. I can't feel any pain," he said.
The Church strongly disapproves of the practice, which took hold in northern Pampanga province about 60 years ago as a form of religious vow for Filipinos seeking forgiveness, to have illnesses cured even get wishes granted.
"There's only one crucifixion that saved mankind," said Angel Lagdameo, former head of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and archbishop in the central city of Jaro.
After playing Christ in the town's main re-enactment for the 25th time on Friday, house painter Ruben Inaje said he wanted to retire in two years when he completes his third nine-year religious vow to carry the 50 kg (110 pounds) wooden cross.
The colourful street play in Cutud village has been drawing thousands of curious foreign and local tourists as well as journalists, turning what should be a solemn Good Friday religious ritual into a carnival-like atmosphere.
The town has built a hill with three crosses in the middle of an open field for the main ceremony, with crucifixions also taking place in nearby villages earlier in the day.
Souvenir and food stalls surrounded the hill, and people selling ice-cream, sodas and water wandered among the crowd and the narrow, dusty streets.
The Church says crucifixions done to seek something from God are not Christian acts because they are self-serving and corrupt the message of Christ's suffering for others. More than 80 percent of the Philippines population are Catholic.
"For us, it is enough for Catholics to observe the church activities from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday and comply with the discipline of Lent," Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, spokesman for Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, told Reuters. -- Reporting by Eric de Castro, Pedro Uchi and Patricia Chiu