Taming Nazarene devotees with police power

The “traslacion” (literally transfer), or procession of the Black Nazarene, in Manila, is one of the most extravagant displays of Filipino popular piety, with millions of people taking part each year.

For years, devotees of the dark image of a kneeling Jesus carrying his cross have perfected ways to control and manage the chaotic procession. 

The picture is the same every year. 

People try to get near and touch the image, while those who pull the carriage of the icon ensure that the procession proceeds amid the throng of riotous devotees. And yes, sometimes people get hurt in the crush.

Security and medical personnel are always on hand to provide assistance and respond to incidents. 

However rowdy, chaotic, and painful, the devotees always make sure that the carriage of the Black Nazarene reaches its home — the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Manila’s Quiapo district.

This year, however, things have changed. 

The police were put in charge of pulling the carriage in the early hours of the procession, with police vehicles leading the way. 

Thousands of police and military personnel, decked out in full battle gear, formed a human wall to prevent devotees from getting near the carriage, and otherwise lined the procession route.

Those who attempted to get through were knocked down and evicted from the area. Some were arrested and brought to police headquarters. 

Photographs showing the use of force against devotees circulated on various social media networks. In one photo, a soldier was seen choking a devotee.

A television news reporter captured a police officer trying to arrest a devotee, knocking the man down to the ground.

A police general approached a reporter who was filming the incident, snatched their mobile phone and deleted the video.

The journalist, however, retrieved the footage and posted the incident on social media, where it went viral. 

Policemen get in a scuffle with devotees during the annual religious procession of the image of the Black Nazarene in Manila on Jan. 9. (Photo courtesy of the Photojournalists Center of the Philippines)

The traslacion, which takes place on Jan. 9, used to run for over 20 hours. This year the procession ended after 16 hours with the help of the police and military, who had to beat, whack, and, clobber devotees.

I have been covering the annual procession for more than a decade now, but it was the first time that church officials gave the police this much control over a religious activity.

Why do we need state security forces to guard the image of the Black Nazarene? Who are we afraid of? Is there a threat? 

Does God really need thousands of government troops to guard him? Is Manila really that dangerous? Or do we just not trust the devotees? 

Church officials allowed a “militarized” procession because they might be looking at the devotees’ rowdy display of piety as “uncivilized.” Perhaps they wanted the police and the army to tame them.

They employed force to “neutralize” those who believe that the only way to solve their social and economic problems is to get near and touch the image of the Black Nazarene, whispering their prayers.

In the past, the traslacion was the only day devotees were given full control of the carriage of the Black Nazarene. They dictate when and where the procession goes. It’s the only time they feel that their faith really matters. 

But this year, that was taken from them. 

I don’t blame the police and the military for doing what they did. It’s what they are trained to do. They are supposed to apply force and power to silence those who provoke disorder.

But in a religious setting, isn’t it the role of church officials to deal with the loud, the crazy, and the desperate who are often also “the least, the lost, and the last” in society? 

How should the Church deal with this rowdy display of piety? How does the Church look at the poor and the working class? How does the Church look at the precariat, who comprise the millions of devotees?

Does the Church have to employ force? Does the Church have to use the same instruments that the state uses to combat the illegal drug trade, to end the insurgency, and to address criminality?

The annual traslacion is a Filipino Catholic tradition. Let it stay that way. 

Mark Saludes is a freelance journalist based in Manila who reports on social justice and human rights issues for LiCAS.news. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS. news.

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