April 14, 2006

Crosses and Bikinis Dot Philippine Easter Landscape

By Carmel Crimmins

CUTUD, Philippines -- Nine Filipinos were nailed to wooden crosses this Good Friday and scores more whipped their backs into a bloody pulp in a gory re-enactment of the death of Jesus Christ.

Frowned on by the Catholic Church, the annual spectacle in the small village of Cutud, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Manila, is just one of the most extreme examples of Philippine religious fervor this Easter.

Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her cabinet went on a two-day retreat "to reflect on the suffering of Jesus Christ."

Manila police officers acted as the 12 apostles in a series of Masses and on Easter Sunday, the northern town of Minalin will explode a life-size effigy of biblical traitor Judas.

Asia's only Roman Catholic nation, the Philippines has always shouted its faith from the rooftops. Literally, in some parts of Manila, where buildings are crowned with neon religious proverbs.

At street level, cars are decked out with miniature icons and rosary beads, government offices have shrines to Mary, and national newspapers feature daily extracts from the bible.

But, alongside this strong Catholic imagery is an urban society which talks openly about sex during its coffee breaks, uses birth control and smiles rather than frowns upon single mothers.

"The Philippines was a very conservative country, suddenly it became the opposite," said Muhammad A. Soria, a former Catholic priest who converted to Islam in 2002. "There has been an influx of modern ideas."

Soria's experience as a parish priest in Kuwait in the 1990s impressed upon him how Muslim society interwove religion with daily life, a combination he feels is weakening in contemporary Philippines.


Churches across the southeast Asian country will be packed this weekend as millions observe Easter rituals. But for many city folk, the long summer weekend is an excuse to don bikinis and swimming trunks and hit the beaches.

"Not even a majority I think would fast during Holy Week," said Earl Parreno, a political analyst. "These (Catholic images) are superficial piety. They are not so deeply embraced by the people that they will follow every command of the Church."

In rural provinces, adherence to Catholic teachings is still strong, but in the big cities, decades of Western influence have created a society tolerant of homosexuality and premarital sex.

Urban Filipinos are not, however, dropping out of religious life, in fact many are tuning in to different congregations.

Around 82 percent of the Philippines' 85 million people claim membership of the Catholic Church down from 86 percent early last century, as Islam, Protestant evangelical groups and locally-founded charismatic movements attract more followers.


Some middle-class Filipinos, unhappy with Rome's teachings on sex and contraception, are turning to Protestant Churches.

"The sermons are more thoughtful and more meaningful in an every-day context," said Kat Gomez, 30, a born Catholic who attends a local Protestant church with her fiance and daughter.

"It is such a big thing for me that the pastors are married. I feel they understand more. They live family life themselves."

A much larger number of poor Filipinos, looking for inspiration beyond Catholicism's message of bearing life's trials with dignity, are attracted to evangelical groups, where rousing music and preachers help them forget their problems, for a time.

"We have a significant number of former Catholics coming to our churches," said Bishop Efraim Tendero, national director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, which he said had about 2 million members compared to 300,000 two decades ago.

In addition to the Protestant churches, locally founded groups such as Iglesia ni Cristo (Tagalog for Church of Christ) and Catholic charismatic group El Shaddai (Hebrew for "God Almighty") attract millions via TV and open-air vigils.

Such evangelical movements pose a threat to the traditional Catholic Church in the Philippines. Suffering from a chronic shortage of priests, around one for every 13,000 followers, the country's dominant religion is seen as detached and dogmatic.

Some of its clergy are worried that Catholicism, dominant since the Spanish started converting the Philippines in the 16th century, could be heading for decline unless more flexibility is introduced.

"We are not taking the threat seriously enough," said one Manila priest. "We should be doing more."