Reenacting the Passion of Christ is a popular tradition in parts of the Phillippines. Despite the islands calling a heavily modified version of Catholicism their state religion, voluntary crucifixion is not sanctioned by the church. Nevertheless, thousands of people stream to San Fernando Manila every year to cheer for (and beat) the participating martyrs.
The ceremony itself is steeped in tradition, which might explain the outcry against a public health initiative that tried to replace the nails with sterilised ones, mandating tetanus shots for the Christs to protect them from infections. Another break in tradition occurred when the repentant sinners were asked to bring enough drinking water to their pilgrimage, to avoid dehydration. And the whole thing is sponsored by Coca Cola.
When we heard that our friend, the photographer Martin Fengel, had visited the event, we called him to find out if it‘s still as much fun as it used to be to get oneself beaten up for two days straight before getting nailed to a cross.
VICE: How did you hear about the crucifixions in Manila?
Martin Fengel: I was visiting for a project involving the Goethe Institut and I met this guy from Doctors Without Borders who told me what happens in San Fernando around Easter. He said that they crucify people there and that we should visit. We arrived early one day and there were already rituals going on in the village with groups of guys walking around flagellating themselves.
When do the crucifixions start?
Easter. Everybody meets on the village square on the day of the crucifixion. There are also people who build themselves Roman armours from cardboard. Then the people that are about to get crucified are chased through the streets to the crucifixion site.
How do the Christs prepare themselves?
Two days before Easter, they start praying hypnotically, like in a mantra, and keep beating themselves. Then they stop in front of small churches and throw themselves to the ground. The priest from the church blesses them and then they walk to the next church. That‘s going on for the whole day and they‘re beaten and blessed at every church with different implements: knotted ropes, sticks, everything they can find. Kids come and beat them, too.
They're beaten by kids?
Yes, I believe the kids think it‘s funny. Personally, I was shocked, because I‘ve never seen something like that before and I didn‘t know what would be happening. I was even more shocked that people treated the crucifixion process as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
And the parents?
They were there, too, and looked like they were having just as much fun. They just let the kids do whatever they wanted.
Does everyone make it to the cross or do some people back down?
Everyone wants to make it really bad. The crucifixion is the grand finale, there is no better way to find salvation. For me it was really weird: it was full of blood, because their skin was already open and it was just gushing out.
What sort of people want to be crucified?
They were very diverse. It is a very personal thing. People go there from the whole of the Philippines. I think they feel very good afterwards. I read an article a few days later, saying that the chief of the police offered to spare some guys their petty offences if they got themselves crucified.
So some guys are there playing the part of the Romans. And when the Christs arrive they cut them with swords?
Exactly, but there is a doctor supervising the whole thing now. There were some grievances because some people brought their own nails. The doctor told them that they had to use the nails that were provided on the site because they are clean and there were too many health problems because of the dirty nails. Three men approach the cross, they cut the martyrs and torture them a bit and then they hang there, for about five minutes. The physicians take them down and then the next one goes up. There is a small queue.
How exactly are they crucified?
The nails in the feet and the hands are about five centimetres long and they go through the body. But there is a little pedestal on the cross, on which they can stand, so they don‘t hang completely. The nails are driven in by the Romans. You can hear when they meet the wood. There are three women there, too. Mary and two other ones, completing the scene.
What happens when they get taken down from the cross?
The crucified are put on stretchers and get transported to the tent of the Red Cross. They take care of the last three crucified ones at the same time.They each get desinfected and so on.
What’s it like when the men hang on those crosses?
The atmosphere's happy and everyone gets excited about it finally happening. When I went, there was a small VIP and press area and people kept yelling, “Hey look over here,” and stuff like that. “Look even sadder, please.“ It‘s like a festival. When you do it, you know what you‘re in for.
Aren‘t there any people there that don‘t want to watch other people get crucified?
No, everyone is used to it. Filipinos love to get together and party, just like everyone else.
WORDS: TOM LITTLEWOOD
PHOTOS: MARTIN FENGEL