CUTUD, Philippines (Reuters) - About two dozen Filipinos were nailed to crosses on Good Friday in an extreme display of devotion that the Catholic church looks down upon as a form of folk religion but appears powerless to stop.
The re-enactment of the passion of Jesus Christ draws thousands of tourists to the Pampanga region, 80 km (50 miles) north of the capital, to watch barefoot penitents flagellate themselves and a series of crucifixions on an artificial hill.
The practice, which took hold in the province about 60 years ago as form of religious vow by poor people seeking forgiveness, a cure for illness and the fulfilment of other wishes.
Archbishop Paciano Aniceto said the gory practice was a distortion of Christ's teachings of love and selfless service. But he conceded that the church could not stop the ritual that he described as "popular piety".
Another bishop said people had to understand the folk Catholicism widely practiced in the Philippines, which has the largest Christian population in Asia. About 80 percent of its 96 million people are Catholic.
"We are in no position to suppress them," Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio David told Reuters.
"I do not think it is right to close our doors to them just because they are more attracted to these folk practices than to our Roman liturgy which they may find too foreign or cerebral."
Devotees, insisting they were prepared to endure pain as penance, had 5-inch stainless steel nails driven into their hands. Then, for a few minutes, they were hanged on wooded crosses.
"We do this because of our faith not because we're paid," Ruben Inaje, a house painter who has played the role of Christ for 27 years, told Reuters.
"Two years ago, I said it would be the last time I'd do it. But every time I say that, my wife gets sick. I guess God wants me to continue this sacrifice as a lifetime vow," he said before taking up a 50 kg (110 lb) cross and heading to the crucifixion site.
A circus-like atmosphere prevailed on a sun-drenched day.
"It's my first time to witness a man being crucified," said Charlotte Johansen, 26, a Norwegian non-government organisation worker, was taking pictures with her friends.
The village of Cutud has built the hill with three crosses for the main ceremony with crucifixions also taking place in two nearby villages.
Souvenir and food vendors staked out the hill and people selling ice-cream and sodas wandered among the crowd.
"The crucifixions here have become a purely tourism event," said an official from the area, who handles accreditation for the flock of journalists which descends every year.
Additional Reporting by Romeo Ranoco and Pedro Uchi; Writing By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Robert Birsel