Millions of Catholic devotees gathered in the streets of Manila on Monday morning despite a warning from the president of the Philippines about a possible terrorist attack on the event.
President Benigno Aquino III said at a press conference on Sunday that police were trying to arrest several suspected terrorists in the country’s capital before they could carry out a plot to violently disrupt the Roman Catholic procession.
The feast of the Black Nazarene is held every year in honour of a statue of Christ brought from Mexico to Manila by Spanish missionaries. The life-sized icon was charred but survived when the ship that carried it across the ocean caught fire, and some believe the statue has mystical powers.
During the march, the Black Nazarene is pulled on a carriage through the capital city, as Catholics pray for their loved ones and ask forgiveness for their sins. Some devotees try to touch or kiss the statue as it moves through the streets.
Mr. Aquino said the crush of people who converge in Manila’s streets make the procession “a very tempting terrorist threat.”
In an official statement published on the government’s website, the president suggested terrorists have wanted to disrupt the procession before, but did not have the means to follow through.
“Previously, the difference between their intentions and capabilities has been quite pronounced,” the statement indicates. “The possibility [of an attack this year] prompts us to warn you of the risk in attending the procession.”
But Mr. Aquino added that the suspected plot did not warrant a cancellation of the festivities.
Participants were asked to keep cellphones and weapons away from the parade and told not to light firecrackers during the procession. They were also warned to expect more active policing.
The suspected terrorists police are Filipinos, Mr. Aquino said. He could not confirm whether they were part of Abu Sayyaf, a group based in the south of the Philippines and linked to al-Qaeda.
The United States lists Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization and provides support to help the Philippine military attack the group.
On Thursday, the U.S. updated a travel advisory on the Philippines, warning that terrorism remains a significant threat. “U.S. citizens are reminded that terrorist attacks could be indiscriminate and could occur in any area of the country, including Manila,” the advisory states, adding that public gathering places are a common target.
The U.S. advisory does not mention the Black Nazarene procession, and Mr. Aquino said the threat his government is monitoring is unrelated.