ANGELES CITY, Philippines Hundreds of half-naked Filipinos marched on narrow roads, whipping their backs until they were bloody in a religious ritual Thursday as the mainly Roman Catholic state observed the Lenten season.
Many Filipino Catholics perform religious penance during the week leading up to Easter as a form of worship and supplication. These religious rites are believed to cleanse the sins of the devotees, cure illnesses and even grant wishes.
"I have been doing this as my personal vow to the Lord," 42-year-old construction worker Luisito Cabini told Reuters, preparing to whip his back with a bundle of bamboo sticks at the end of a rope.
In Angeles City, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Manila, bloody gashes from repeated strikes of whips could be seen on the backs of devotees as they walked barefoot along the streets, believing that their sacrifice would somehow grant salvation for their sins.
Flagellants begin the ritual by tying a rope around their arms and legs and inflicting wounds on their backs with a blade.
The devotees walk barefoot in the sweltering heat, stopping every few hundred metres at makeshift altars while local residents recite a text narrating Jesus Christ's suffering.
"The Lord has been good to my family. He has healed one of my sons who is suffering from tuberculosis and none of my three children got sick since I started this vow four years ago. I made a vow to do this every year to say thanks to our Lord," Cabini said.
The flagellants, known locally as magdarame, marched for about four to five hours under a scorching sun.
"These wounds and the pain I feel is nothing compared to Jesus' ordeal. I don't think I can endure the torture he had suffered, but this is our own way to atone for our sins and seek his guidance and protection," Cabini said.
University of the Philippines Sociology Professor Gerry Lanuza says the mixture of Filipino culture and the Catholic religion changed the practices of devotees, which differed from traditional Roman Catholic observances of Holy Week.
"It's not enough that they confess their sins. They need to inflict serious injuries upon themselves so that they will be convinced that their sins have been forgiven," he said.
Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the Church has been discouraging these practices, describing them as "un-Christian."
"It is enough for Catholics to observe Church activities from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday and comply with the discipline of Lent," Quitorio told Reuters.
But the penitents just asked for acceptance.
"We respect the Church's beliefs. We just hope that they respect ours as much as we respect theirs," said Jay Pasamonte, who has been doing the ritual for 16 years.
Over 80 percent of Filipinos practice the Catholic religion. Holy Week commemorates the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.
(Reporting by Erick de Castro, Roli Ng and Manuel Mogato, editing by Elaine Lies)