MANILA - Hundreds of thousands of barefoot Catholics joined the start of the procession of the Black Nazarene through downtown Manila early Monday despite reports of possible terror threats to the annual religious gathering.
The mammoth procession that will bring back the centuries-old image of the suffering Christ from the Quirino Grandstand to the Quiapo Church began around 5:20 a.m. after a morning liturgy.
The devotees, mostly in maroon shirts, crowded the cross-bearing statue of Jesus Christ, that is believed to have healing powers, in the hope that a slight touch would bless them and heal their illnesses.
They jostled to get near the ebony statue and pull the fat rope that moved forward its float while onlookers threw white towels and handkerchiefs to escorts on the carriage for wiping on the image.
'NO TERROR THREAT'
The United States, United Kingdom, and Canada earlier cautioned its citizens against joining the Traslacion, citing information from the Department of Local and Interior Government on possible terror threats to the procession.
The National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) however clarified that there was no imminent threat to the religious event.
"Wala po tayong natatagpuang any clear and present danger on any terror act o kahit anumang grupo na maaaring magsagawa ng karahasan dito sa ginagawang Traslacion," said NCRPO director, Chief Superintendent Oscar Albayalde.
(We have not found any clear and present danger on any terror act or group that may cause violence during the Traslacion.)
Intelligence units have not monitored the presence of the Maute terror group and other extremists in Metro Manila, Albayalde added.
Nonetheless, he said the NCRPO remains in full alert and has deployed over 4,700 policemen to secure the procession.
Mobile phone services were also cut in the one-kilometer radius of the Nazareno's float.
Medical volunteers, meanwhile, gave first aid to some devotees who sustained minor injuries and experienced dizziness and difficulty in breathing.
The procession of the life-sized statue of Black Nazarene bearing a heavy cross on his shoulder has been celebrated in the capital for more than 200 years.
It is not known why the image, which was carved in Mexico, turned black, according to the website of the basilica housing it. There are myths that the original statue donated by Spanish priests was burned as a fire erupted on the ship that carried it to the Philippines in the early 17th century.
The Philippines, where nearly 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, is famous for its colorful festivals and religious feasts, with the Black Nazarene also paraded through the city streets on Good Friday to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Some 15 million people are expected at the peak of the 5.9 kilometer-long procession. -- With reports from Dennis Datu, Ruby Tayag, Ron Lopez, DZMM; April Rafales, Jorge Carinño, ABS-CBN News; Reuters