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Gruesome crucifixions mark Easter ritual

world Updated: Mar 21, 2008 14:52 IST

Devout Roman Catholic Ruben Enaje donned a crown of thorns as he put himself through the agonising ordeal of being nailed to a cross -- for the 22nd time.

The 47-year-old decorator was the first of 19 men in this northern Philippines village Friday who underwent the gruesome Easter crucifixion ritual, an extreme form of penance by devotees wanting to thank God for answering their prayers.

On the one occasion he skipped it eight years ago, he said, he was struck down with stomach ulcers and his wife was taken ill.

"It is painful and difficult. But I will continue doing this for as long as I can. This is my pledge to God," the father of four told AFP as he prepared his ceremonial garb at his modest wooden home.

Thousands of tourists braved the tropical heat Friday to flock to this poor farming community about an hour's drive north of Manila to witness the religious rites.

The re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of a bloody annual spectacle that shocks outsiders in this devoutly Roman Catholic nation.

Neighbours costumed like Roman centurions dragged Enaje and the other penitents through the village streets and toward a barren hill where three wooden crosses and a large crowd of at least 2,000 tourists awaited.

He screamed in agony as seven-inch (18-centimetre) metal nails were driven into both palms and feet while lying spread-eagled over the cross.

The wooden contraption was stood for about five minutes before it was hauled down again and the nails pulled out. The process was repeated for the other volunteers.

Hours ahead of the ceremony, scores of other local men whipped themselves bloody with strips of bamboo attached to strings to atone for their sins.

The dominant Roman Catholic Church frowns on these extreme practices and the health department has warned the penitents to take anti-tetanus shots first and to sterilise their equipment.

"The church does not recommend it because the church is against self-flagellation," said Father Norman Vitug, the local parish priest.

"Of course when we express our faith to the Lord the Church does not want us to hurt ourselves for us to experience the Love of God.

"But we cannot question somebody's faith. It's just an expression of their faith. We do not lead their lives so we do not know what happens to them while experiencing that, so we might as well respect it," the priest added.

The crucifixions are organised by the village council, with help from the national government's tourism department, said village official Leonard David.

The order of the crucifixions were done "according to seniority," with Enaje first because he had done it the most in the past, David added.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque said that as it was hard to discourage "flagellants from whipping their own flesh, the best penitents can do is ensure that their whips are well-maintained.

"We are not trying to go against the Lenten tradition here because whipping has somewhat already become some form of 'atonement for sins' for some of us," Duque said.

"But this advice is important to make sure that no one will land in the hospital due to tetanus or other infections that penitents might get in the process."