Catholics in Philippines defy coronavirus lockdown to perform bloody Easter ritual commemorating death of Jesus

The Independent

Catholic penitents in the Philippines have defied the country’s partial coronavirus lockdown to self-flagellate in a bloody Easter ritual commemorating the death of Jesus on Good Friday.

Many parts of the Catholic-majority country have been in “enhanced community quarantine”, with churchgoers told to stay home throughout the holy week.

The annual procession of the “Black Nazarene”, a centuries-old statue of Jesus, through central Manila has been cancelled, as have numerous folk rituals, which usually draw thousands of worshippers and tourists.

As a result, one particularly well-known worshipper in Pampanga, Ruben Enaje, spent his first Easter without being nailed to a wooden cross in 33 years after he was forced to cancel his annual crucifixion performance.​

Despite such practices being frowned upon by the Vatican, many Filipino Catholics believe the gory rites can cure illnesses and make wishes come true – a tempting prospect in the midst of pandemic, which has claimed at least 221 lives in the Phillipines.

Some donned protective masks and bandanas, congregating in otherwise emptied streets to whip themselves and pray outside closed churches while bleeding openly from their backs.

Others were pictured allowing fellow worshippers to cut the flesh of their backs with razor blades.

“We are here because we want the spread of Covid-19 to end and we pray that things in our country will go back to normal,” said Edward Degusano, who joined a self-flagellation ritual outside a church in Manila.

However, some penitents found themselves being interrogated by police officers, with images of one bloodied worshipper in a police vehicle, taken by an EPA photographer, suggesting some arrests may have been made.

The Catholic church has expressed disapproval of the self-punishments, saying prayers and sincere repentance are enough for sins to be forgiven.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has also encouraged the public to stay home this year, and remember Jesus’s suffering through family prayers, fasting, and televised mass ceremonies.

For 30-year-old Catholic missionary, Josille Sabsal, foregoing public annual ceremonies is a test of faith in itself.

Ms Sabsal tried to replicate an altar in her home in the capital by setting up a laptop, a crucifix and small statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on a table.

“It’s different, because the priest is on a screen,” she said. “When the internet lags, the mass suddenly gets cut off and you have to look for another YouTube video. I miss that moment in church when you say ‘Peace be with you’ to complete strangers and they smile back.”

Reverend Flavie Villanueva, who ministers in Manila’s slums, received special permission to celebrate Mass on Thursday for 73 homeless people in a college basketball court.

They wore masks, stayed more than an arm’s length apart, and there was no singing. He said he was sad to see the churches emptied out, but hopes it will help people to renew their faith.

“We are asked to go back and rediscover where the church in our lives first started, and that’s in the family,” he said.

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