MANILA (Reuters Life!) - Thousands of Filipinos lined up across a football field in Manila to mark the start of Lent by forming a human cross they hoped would go down as the world's biggest.
Officials at the University of Santo Tomas, a Catholic university that at 400 years old is the nation's oldest, said the Ash Wednesday event was also a proclamation of the school's stand against abortion and a controversial bill on reproductive health currently being debated.
More than 20,000 people, including students, faculty members and university personnel, the students wearing black t-shirts or white school uniforms, stood side by side to form a two-colored Dominican cross while prayers were recited and songs sung.
"Forming this biggest cross will make people remember that the Lenten season is all about Christ," said speech pathology student Erika Claire Gomez.
Information about the cross will be sent to Guinness for verification.
In Catholic churches around the country, Filipinos -- around 80 percent of whom are Catholic -- observed Ash Wednesday by hearing Mass and having a cross drawn on their foreheads with ashes. Many will fast or make other sacrifices for the 40-day Lenten period.
Tuesday, lawmakers opened debate on a reproductive health bill that seeks to improve access to finromation on contraception but faces strong opposition from the country's influential Roman Catholic bishops.
The church, a major social and political force in the poor Southeast Asian nation, which has one of Asia's fastest-growing populations, has blocked similar legislative measures since the 1990s and has denounced President Benigno Aquino's support for contraception.
"The cross is the symbol of life for us, the tree of life," said Winston Cabading, the vice-rector for religious affairs at Santo Tomas, which with 40,000 students is the largest Catholic University in the world in terms of student population.
"Now, this is not only an attempt to form the biggest human cross, but this is also a spiritual event for each one of us."
(Reporting by Michaela Cabrera;editing by Elaine Lies)