MANILA: Millions of Catholic devotees swept through the Philippine capital on Wednesday in a spectacular show 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 what she said was the 40th year in a row, grandmother Carmelita Maralit 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, 64, who travelled in from an outlying suburb, as others jostled around her.
Nine million pilgrims joined the procession as the icon went on its 10-hour journey through the streets and back to its home at Quiapo church, according to Superintendent Ronaldo Estilles, Manila's deputy police chief.
The frenzied rush of people trying to touch the icon looked like giant waves tossing about the slowly moving carriage on which the statue rests.
At one point, a wave of people swept across an old bridge that the police had earlier temporarily blocked with physical barriers due to fears it could collapse.
However, the bridge withstood the pounding and the procession ended without serious incident.
And although most of the devotees wore no shoes as a sign of penance, police said just 164 people were treated for minor injuries and ailments.
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.
On Wednesday, Larry Torralba, 34, carried four white handkerchiefs as he and dozens of neighbours waited for the statue to pass them, intending to jump above the throng onto the icon's carriage and touch it.
"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.
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.