Sea of devotees clamber over one another to touch the Black Nazarene statue during the annual religious procession in Manila on January 9, 2014
MANILA (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of barefoot devotees poured into Manila Thursday for one of the world's biggest Catholic parades honouring an ebony statue of Jesus Christ they believe has miraculous powers.
Braving the crowds and suffocating heat, pilgrims clambered over one another to touch the Black Nazarene statue during its slow procession of six kilometres (nearly four miles) from the Philippine capital's main park to a historic church.
"This has been a family tradition for years, and the Nazarene has given us many blessings over the years," said housewife Josephine Manalastas, attending with her 80-year-old mother.
The two were nearly crushed and had to be escorted to an ambulance by volunteers after the devotees broke through a steel barrier protecting the statue's carriage before the march began.
Police are on full alert for the procession, while dozens of devotees have already been rushed to first-aid tents after they collapsed.
Schools have declared it a holiday and police estimated hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had visited by early in the morning. Organisers believe the figure will increase to millions over the day.
As the procession began, devotees climbed on each other's shoulders to kiss the statue or wipe it with white towels and handkerchiefs.
For heavily pregnant housewife Kaye Morales, 32, attending the procession was a way of thanking the Lord for saving her teenage son from a near-fatal accident last year.
Seven months pregnant, Morales travelled to Manila from Bacoor just south of the capital and queued for hours to kiss the feet of the statue.
More than 80 percent of the Philippines' 100 million population are Catholic, a legacy of four centuries of Spanish colonial rule, making it Asia's main bastion of the faith.
The country is deeply religious, but Thursday's march through Manila's old quarter -- the biggest religious event in the country -- is an extreme form of veneration.
The life-sized statue of Jesus was brought to Manila by Augustinian priests from Mexico in 1607, decades after the start of colonial rule.
It was believed to have acquired its black colour after it was partially burnt when the Spanish galleon carrying it caught fire.
Filipinos believe the icon is miraculous and that by joining the procession, barefoot to humble themselves, their prayers will be answered.
Manila labourer Wilson Faculto said he and his wife had failed to have a child in 15 years of marriage.
But after first joining the annual Black Nazarene procession five years ago, they were given a baby in December.
"A woman we didn't know gave us her baby for adoption, and walked away," he said.
"This boy is our Nazarene miracle," he said, cradling the two-month-old baby in his arms.
Other members of the Faculto family had camped out in the park for two days to be among the first to touch the statue. They slept on the grass, ignoring the foul smell from overflowing portable toilets nearby.
Manila's archbishop, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, delivered a special mass before the start of the procession. He asked the pilgrims to pray for the victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which pummelled the country in November, leaving thousands dead and missing.
"Those who do not forget God also do not forget his fellow man," he said. "Let us not be ashamed to proclaim our love for Jesus."
The message was not lost on security guard Efren Delantar, who lost relatives to the typhoon.
"They are no longer with us, but we are asking for special intercession for them," he said.
"I know that wish has been granted. They are all in heaven." - AFP