MANILA, Philippines - Catholic devotees swept through the Philippine capital on Wednesday in a spectacular outpouring of passion for a centuries-old statue of Jesus Christ that many believe holds miraculous powers.
In the nation's biggest annual religious gathering, barefoot men and women crammed into Manila's streets hoping to touch the life-sized, black icon as it was paraded through the city's historic area for a day-long procession.
For what she said was the 40th year in a row, grandmother Carmelita Maralit, 64, waited for the "Black Nazarene" to pass her by, holding a lit candle under the intense tropical sun.
"I have high-blood pressure and I believe it (honouring the statue) helps ease my pains," said Maralit, who travelled in from an outlying suburb, told AFP as others jostled around her.
Police said half a million people joined the parade as it began at a seaside Manila park but estimated the crowd would grow to eight million, as in previous years, before the icon is returned to its home at nearby Quiapo church.
The frenzied rush of people trying to touch the icon causes the moving carriage on which the statue rests to look like it is being tossed in a sea of human waves. Most of the devotees wear no shoes as a sign of penance.
Larry Torralba, 34, carried four white handkerchiefs as he and 69 neighbours waited for the parade, intending to jump above the throng onto the icon's carriage and touch it with a handkerchief.
"I'm not asking for miracles, only that (God) keep me away from trouble and help me find work," said the sometime Manila carpenter, currently out of a job.
Most of the nearly 100 million Filipinos are Catholic, a legacy of Spanish colonial rule that collapsed at the end of the 19th Century.
The statue was brought to Manila by Augustinian priests from Mexico in 1607, and its dark colour is believed to have been caused by it being slightly burnt in a fire aboard the Spanish galleon on which it was being transported.
But while many hail the statue for its supposed special powers and the Catholic Church celebrates the outpouring of devotion, not all Filipinos think the same way.
One of the country's most prominent independent filmmakers, Jim Libiran, described the procession as "a pagan sacred orgy for a Christian idol" that was no different from the hysteria of pop fans.
"To the non-religious, this is like being with Justin Bieber... (or Michael Jackson, or John Lennon) without their bodyguards," he said in posts on his Facebook and Twitter sites.