SAN PEDRO CUTUD, Pampanga -- Thousands of Filipino Roman Catholic devotees and tourists descended Friday on a farming village north of Manila to witness the crucifixion of several men in a reenactment of Jesus Christ's sufferings, a gory annual tradition church leaders frown upon.
At least eight men have enlisted to be crucified briefly at noon to wooden crosses by villagers dressed as Roman centurions before thousands of spectators in northern Pampanga province's San Pedro Cutud village, tourism officer Ching Pangilinan said.
The spectacle reflects a unique brand of Catholicism that merges church traditions with folk superstitions. Many of the mostly impoverished penitents undergo the ritual to atone for sins, pray for the sick or a better life, or give thanks for what they believe were God-given miracles.
The Lenten rituals are frowned upon by church leaders in the Philippines, Asia's largest Roman Catholic nation, especially if the event is used to boost tourism and business. The re-enactments of the crucifixion, however, have persisted and became an awaited tourist attraction in the largely unknown village in Pampanga province, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the capital.
Mayor Edwin Santiago of San Fernando, the city where San Pedro Cutud lies, said up to 50,000 local and foreign devotees and tourists were expected to turn up for the crucifixions. More than 400 police officers were deployed and first-aid stations set up to look after the huge crowd.
"We provide assistance because we can't stop the influx of tourists," Pangilinan said. "We don't promote it as a festival but it's rather a show of respect to a local tradition."
Villagers have used the crowd-drawing events to peddle food, water, fans, umbrellas and souvenirs and rent out parking slots and toilets. A leading cellphone company provided tents for shade with its name embossed on them.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas said it's best for Catholics to mark Lent in prayers and acts of love and charity.
"Instead of spilling your blood on the streets, why not walk into a Red Cross office and donate blood? Choose to share life. Share your blood," Villegas said in remarks posted in a Catholic church website.
Friday's crucifixions would be the 32nd for Ruben Enaje, a sign painter who began his yearly rite after surviving a fall from a building.
Prior to the crucifixions, dozens of male penitents walked several kilometers (miles) through village streets, beating their bare backs with sharp bamboo sticks and pieces of wood. Some of the penitents had their backs inflicted with cuts to keep them bloody.
Foreigners have been banned from taking part since an Australian comic was nailed to a cross under a false name a few years ago near Pampanga. Authorities also believe that a Japanese man sought to be crucified as part of a porn film in 1996. (AP)