Agence France-Presse, San Fernando, the Philippines
A Danish man joined eight Filipinos in re-enacting the death of Jesus Christ Friday by being nailed to crosses in a bloody annual Easter spectacle in the Philippines before thousands of surprised onlookers.
The crucifixion ritual — held every year on Good Friday in Asia’s bastion of Catholicism — has been marked for decades in farming districts in the city of San Fernando, 65 kilometres (40 miles) north of Manila, becoming a major tourist draw despite official disapproval from Church leaders.
But local residents were surprised to see the Dane, identified by a local tourism officer as 48-year-old filmmaker Lasse Spang Olsen, participate in an act restricted to Philippine citizens after a series of embarrassing incidents involving foreigners in the past.
On separate occasions a Japanese man and an Australian national underwent crucifixions in the same region, with the former later revealing that footage of the ritual was used in a pornographic movie while the Australian man was subsequently exposed as a TV comedian.
Olsen, wearing a small video camera to record the act, stoically endured having nails driven through his hands and feet and hung on the wooden cross for 10 minutes before being taken down.
He made no comments to the press afterwards but was overheard describing the event as a “great experience”.
Onlookers were surprised to see him take part, with one saying: “It’s a foreigner, a foreigner”, while another man remarked: “He didn’t cry out. He took it well.”
Others were sceptical of Olsen’s intentions. “He might be like that Japanese before,” said one spectator, referring to the incident involving the Japan national in 1996.
Eight Filipinos were also nailed to wooden crosses, some of them having undergone the ordeal numerous times already as part of a religious vow.
Danilo Ramos, a 43-year-old pedicab driver, participated in the ritual for the 24th time on Friday, despite having collapsed earlier while carrying a heavy wooden cross under the scorching heat to the crucifixion site.
After getting some rest and water, Ramos underwent crucifixion, crying out loudly as the nails were driven into his palms.
“I hardly feel the pain anymore. I am used to it… I will continue this as long as I can for my family’s health,” Ramos said, adding that his wife and two children had all been in poor health.
The Good Friday tradition also included hundreds of hooded “penitents” flogging themselves with makeshift whips on the sidelines, sometimes accidentally splattering their blood onto onlookers.
Tourism officer Ching Pangilinan, who identified Olsen as a filmmaker, said village officials had allowed the Dane to participate after he presented a waiver of liability from the Danish embassy.
Foreigners have been banned from participating in the crucifixions after a British national backed out from the ritual at the last minute in 2006.
Asked why the ban was violated for Olsen, the district chairman in charge of the event, Zoilo Castro, declined to comment.
Police estimated that around 40,000 people attended the spectacle, about five percent of them foreigners, said Pangilinan.
Organisers changed the schedule this year to minimise overcrowding — instead of having all the crucifixions take place in one district at midday, they were staggered throughout the day in different parts of San Fernando.
Pangilinan said the spectacle has been a big revenue-earner for hotels and vendors hawking drinks, food and souvenirs, but denied that they were commercialising the event.
“It’s not a money-making scheme for the city government. Although we are not promoting it as a tourist destination, we cannot stop the influx of people to this district during Holy Week,” she told AFP.
Many foreign onlookers were baffled by the spectacle.
Dana Johnson, an American teacher in Bangkok, said she came due to an interest in other cultures.
“I wonder why they do this. At first it was a bit shocking. I still have a lot of questions about it. It is not a part of my culture so I can’t fully understand it,” the 37-year-old said.
Father Joselito Jopson, an executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, stressed that the Church does not endorse the practice.
“These are private expressions of faith. It depends on the faithful. We cannot prohibit them if they want to express their faith in that way,” he added. (*****)