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CUTUD, Philippines (Reuters) - More than a dozen Filipinos were nailed to crosses and others whipped their backs until they were bloody in a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday.
The Catholic Church disapproves of the annual ritual of devotion but says it cannot stop people in Asia's largest Roman Catholic country from being voluntarily nailed to a cross or flagellating themselves, only educate them that it isn't necessary.
In the 55th year of the festival, Christ was played by local Ruben Inaje, who said he was being nailed to a cross for the 24th time, as thousands of locals and foreign tourists watched.
"When they put the nails in my palm, that's very painful," said the 49-year-old before his crucifixion. Nails are also driven through his feet.
"Of course I am nervous. But I pray deep in my heart, so the nerves must break down at that time," said Inaje, who said he went to Mass about once a month.
"I feel much better when I get off the cross."
There was a carnival-like atmosphere in Cutud, a small village about 80 kms (50 miles) north of Manila, where 10 other penitents were also nailed to crosses.
A manmade hill with three crucifixes was surrounded by a media area filled with ladders and scaffolding for cameras, a VIP tent with seating, and an open field where vendors sold drinks, snacks, hats and clothing.
The local McDonalds had set up a stall, and ice cream and drink sellers wandered amongst the crowd on a scorching day.
Crucifixions were also held in two nearby villages.
Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the church did not approve of the rituals because they confused the message of Christ's crucifixion.
"We cannot duplicate what Christ has done," he said. "If it is done for religious purposes, it verges on a mockery."
"It's kind of selfish and inward looking, unlike Christ's which was outward looking," he said, adding tourism and financial considerations were also a factor.
"Our attitude should be (that) to keep teaching the real crucifixion is enough."
More than 80 percent of the Philippines 90 million-plus people are Catholic. NOT FOR ALL
Flagellants, known locally as magdarame, whipped themselves with a bundle of bamboo sticks at the end of a rope. Some used razor blades or glass to cut their backs and get their blood flowing as they walked barefoot around the towns.
Inaje said it takes about five months for his wounds to heal fully, but the signwriter and painter said he would be back at work next week.
"I have a vow to God to do this," said Inaje, who survived a three-storey fall in the mid-1980s.
But he did not recommend it for all. "If you don't have a reason, no, don't do this."
For Mary Jane Mamangun, the reason was to help her grandmother's recovery from a stroke
Fourteen years later, with her grandmother in good health and her sister recovered from cancer, the 34-year old was crucified for what she said would be the last time.
She followed three men who were nailed to the cross at San Juan in the late morning. The long, thin nails were driven through the palms with one or two quick taps of the hammer.
Tourists and journalists crowded around the crucifix to watch the nails hammered in. There was no profuse bleeding from the wounds, and all walked down the hill to the first aid station to have their wounds dressed after the nails were removed.
Editing by Jerry Norton