Sat, Mar 30, 2002 - Page 1 News List

Cult members conduct crucifixions

RELIGIOUS FERVOR Filipino believers pushing a message of peace whipped their backs until bloody and allowed themselves to be nailed to crosses on Good Friday

AP , MOUNT PULONGBATO, THE PHILIPPINES

Three penitents endure the pain of being nailed to wooden crosses yesterday in Monte Santo Mount Pulongbato, in Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines, in a reenactment of Jesus Christ's crucifixion.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Thousands of penitents scaled a hilltop where three members of a Christian cult were nailed to crosses in a Good Friday rite of sacrifice for peace in the war-weary south of the Philippines.

"We are setting an example for sinful people to change so there can be peace," said Jose Felipe, a 24-year-old carpenter and member of the Kristo Rey cult who was undergoing his second crucifixion.

"In war, the civilians are always at the losing end," he said before 10cm nails were driven through his palms as several women mumbled prayers in Latin and Chavacano, the local dialect.

Crucifixions and acts of self-flagellation are regular Easter Lenten rites in the Philippines, and similar scenes played out elsewhere around the country yesterday.

The 200m-high hill overlooks Zamboanga, a predominantly Roman Catholic city of 600,000 people, and the narrow strait that separates it from the island province of Basilan, whose forest-clad mountains loomed on the horizon.

Roel Natividad, a Zamboanga city councillor and Kristo Rey member, said previous crucifixions were done for the spiritual benefit of the group but that this year's rites were sacrifices for peace for Basilan.

A US-backed military operation is under way on Basilan against the Muslim extremist Abu Sayyaf group, which has been holding an American couple and a Filipino nurse for 10 months. They are the last of dozens of hostages snatched last year -- others were freed; some were beheaded.

"We are doing this for peace, but we are ready to defend our city from any group, Muslims or Christians, which will try to foment trouble," Natividad said.

He said his group joined a recent rally to back the counter-terrorism exercise involving 660 US soldiers, including 160 from the Special Forces deployed with front-line Philippine troops on Basilan.

Yesterday's rites were steeped in superstition. Kristo Rey members wore red shirts and headbands with black Latin markings that they said only their leaders could understand. Some had triangles and crosses tattooed on their chests and arms.

The three men grimaced in pain as they were nailed down, with a piece of wood on each cross serving as a footrest. Other cult members raised the crosses using nylon ropes that kept them upright for an hour under a scorching sun.

In the middle was cult leader Winnie de Vera, a 23-year-old government waste-recycling employee, who wore a white robe and a wig for his fourth crucifixion. His head was crowned with a thorny vine.

Apparently, his cross leaned too far forward so the nail in his right palm dislodged from the wood and had to be hammered back in.

"Lean the cross back a little," he instructed his followers.

In the small village of San Pedro Cutud, 70km north of Manila, where crucifixion re-enactments take place annually, 18 people were nailed to crosses. Part solemn ritual, part tourist spectacle, the celebrations drew an estimated 20,000 people this time.

It was the 15th year that Bob Velez, 64, has taken part. He portrays Christ, enhanced by a wig of wiry black hair, a white loincloth and a crown of barbed wire.

"I feel the nail, but not the pain. I am strong in my heart," Velez said as he walked around a small clearing where three wooden crosses had been set up.

When his turn came to be hoisted up onto a cross, a grimace of pain and then a smile crossed his face as 20cm nails were driven through his palms.

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