SAN PEDRO CUTUD, Philippines -- Thousands of people gathered in Philippine villages to watch devotees being nailed to crosses as they marked Good Friday by re-enacting Jesus Christ's suffering, a yearly rite that continues even as church leaders discourage the practice.
Nine men wearing crowns of twigs on their heads were crucified for a few minutes by villagers dressed as Roman centurions in northern Pampanga province's San Pedro Cutud village. At least eight other people were nailed to crosses in neighboring villages.
The spectacle reflects a unique brand of Catholicism that merges church traditions with Philippine folk superstitions.
Many of the mostly impoverished penitents undergo the ritual to atone for sins, pray for the sick or a better life, or give thanks for what they believe were God-given miracles.
Friday's crucifixion was the 26th for Ruben Enaje, a 51-year-old sign painter. He began his yearly rite after surviving a fall from a building.
Hours after his palms and feet were nailed to a cross, Enaje, a grandfather of four, said he felt fine and had already walked to the village captain's house.
"I feel good because my suffering has ended," he said.
Prior to the crucifixions, dozens of male penitents walked several kilometers (miles) through village streets, beating their bare backs with sharp bamboo sticks and pieces of wood. Some of the penitents had their backs inflicted with cuts to keep them bloody.
"We do not judge and condemn, but we discourage it," Archbishop Jose Palma, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said of the crucifixions.
The Rev. Melvin Castro, also of the CBCP, said "the church's position is there's no need to go through this physical and literal pain on the body because Christ already did that for us."
He said what the church asks is for people to "enter into the passion and death of Christ by internal sacrifices," including going to confession and giving alms.
But Canadian tourist Samantha Todd said the crucifixions touched her.
"Even though it's not my faith, it makes me feel something inside," she said.
Foreigners have been banned from taking part since an Australian comic was nailed to a cross under a false name a few years ago near Pampanga. Authorities also believe that a Japanese man sought to be crucified as part of a porn film in 1996.
On Friday, two foreign students were allowed to film the rites for their thesis, but they angered organizers when they joined the procession, taking turns in carrying a cross, said San Pedro Cutud village captain Remigno dela Cruz.
The two women were not allowed to go to the mound or be nailed to the cross, he said.