BY GERARD NAVAL AND RAYMOND AFRICA
UP to 18 million devotees will accompany the image of the Black Nazarene today during a more than 20-hour procession as authorities worked to ensure order and to secure the annual event from terrorist threats.
The procession or Traslacion to the Quirino Grandstand will start after the 5 a.m. mass at the Quiapo Church, also known as the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene.
Quiapo Church Rector Msgr. Hernando Coronel said the procession is expected to last at least 20 hours or more “(but) even if the procession takes longer hours, for as long as it is peaceful, orderly, and casualty free, we are okay with it.”
Last week, Interior Secretary Mike Sueno admitted a possible terror threat during the Feast of the Black Nazarene from extremist groups such as the Islamic State, the Maute group and the Abu Sayyaf.
Coronel said aside from their coordination with state security authorities, organizers are banking on the power of prayer in securing the participants of the annual procession.
“We have to pray. It’s really prayer. Sisters, priests, we really pray for 24 hours,” he said.
With devotees expected to scratch and claw their way to the image, Church officials called on the veterans to guide younger devotees on the real reason for joining the procession.
“The Traslacion is not for you to touch or climb the andas. That should not be the objective of a real devotee. The objective of a devotee in joining the procession is to accompany the Black Nazarene until he returns to His home,” said Quiapo Church Parochial Vicar Fr. Douglas Badong.
He pointed how the procession is not the most apt time to try and touch and kiss the Black Nazarene image.
“He (Black Nazarene) is there in the Quiapo church for 365 days. They can line-up and kiss the image. Don’t do it at a time when there are many devotees,” Badong said.
PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa said terrorists are no match for the millions of devotees of the Black Nazarene.
“Basta lahat tayo, ‘yung 15 million na ‘yan, maging vigilant. Sino bang gagong terrorista ang papasok diyan. Kukuyugin ‘yan ng 15 million kahit terrorista ka,” Dela Rosa said.
Dela Rosa said the PNP has not monitored any clear and present danger to today’s procession but the tight security was meant to thwart any possible retaliation from the Ansar Al-Khilafa Philippines and its associates which include the Maute Group.
The AKP suffered a big loss after Mohammad Jaafar Maguid was killed and three of his cohorts were killed in a police operation in a beach resort in Kiamba, Sarangani province last Thursday. Also, Abu Naila, a Pakistani who is a sympathizer of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); and his live-in partner identified only as Kadija, were both killed in an operation in Maasim, Sarangani last Saturday.
Dela Rosa said the AKP, which has ties with the Maute Group and other criminal groups in Mindanao, could launch attacks in retaliation for their slain leader.
He said the Maute Group has been blamed for the Davao City bombing which killed 15 and hurt more than 60 others last September, the foiled bombing at the vicinity of the US Embassy in Manila last November, and the bombing at Hilongos, Leyte which injured 32 late last month.
“So, posible rin ‘yan dito sa Manila area dahil dito sa ginagawa natin na feast ng Black Nazarene at lalo na ‘yung isang talagang religious festival ng mga deboto ng Katoliko, paboritong gagawin nila ‘yan ng extremists na ‘yan dahil nga sabi nila ‘yung non-believer ng Islam ay mga infidel kaya the more na pinaghandaan natin,” he said.
As an added security measure, Dela Rosa said the PNP requested the National Telecommunications Commission to shut down cellphone signals in the vicinity of Quiapo and nearby places during the procession to prevent the possible explosion of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) using cellphones as a triggering mechanism.
In past years, cell phone signals were only jammed.
If the NTC approves of it, he said even Malacañan Palace will be affected. He said the recommendation to shut down cellphone signals will only be from the start of the procession until the image of the Black Nazarene returns to the church.
Metro Manila police chief Director Oscar Albayalde said an ample number of PNP Special Action Force commandos – snipers and observers - will be deployed in observation posts which will be located along the procession route.
Senior Supt. Wilberto Kwan Tiu, BFP-NCR chief, said more than 100 firemen will be deployed to man at least eight fire trucks which will be posted along the procession route so they can readily react to any eventuality.
Armed Forces public affairs chief Col. Edgard Arevalo advised devotees to go ahead and exercise their faith instead of being cowed by possible threats, which are being handled by security forces.
He said the devotees should also serve as extra eyes, ears and force multipliers of the police and the military.
The Department of Health called on devotees and pilgrims to ensure that the religious feast is a smoke-free event.
DOH spokesman Dr. Eric Tayag said not smoking during the procession is a way to show respect to others in the event.
The Philippine Red Cross said it will deploy 58 ambulances, and set up seven first aid stations.
The seven first aid stations and welfare desks will be positioned at Aquino monument, Round Table (Manila City Hall), Liwasang Bonifacio, Plaza Mexico (Post Office), Lacson (Sta. Cruz area), San Sebastian Church, and near Quiapo Church.
The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority said it has set up 19 medical stations near the procession routes for those who need medical attention.
Two devotees died last year while participating at the procession. Alex Fulyedo, 27, collapsed after pulling the rope of Nazarene’s carriage while Mauro Arabit, 58, died of acute coronary syndrome.
MMDA spokeswoman Celine Pialago said 50 of the 1,245 MMDA personnel deployed In Manila for the feast have been fielded at the Quirino Grandstand.
MMDA officer in charge Thomas Orbos said the personnel will help manage traffic flow along the procession routes from the Quirino Grandstand to Quiapo Church.
Pialago said 65 ambulances and 15 rescue boats are on standby in case of emergency.
The MMDA also reminded motorists not to park their vehicles on the road since they will tow illegally-parked vehicles.
The MMDA will impose a temporary truck ban from midnight of Jan. 8 until 1 p.m. on January 9 along Roxas Boulevard from Quirino Ave. to Anda Circle to make way for the Traslacion.
Mayor Estrada told devotees to make the procession “trash-less.” MMDA will clean up along the procession route after the event.
Communications assistant secretary Ana Maria Banaag said President Duterte is so far satisfied with security preparations for the Translacion.
Banaag said Duterte is praying that a terrorist attack would not happen because it could be a bad precedent for the other big and international events that the country is hosting this year like the Miss Universe pageant and the Asean summit.
She said while there are remedial security measures, there is no such thing as a 100 percent assurance.
“Hindi naman po tayo Diyos,” she said. – With Victor Reyes, Christian Oineza, Evan Orias and Jocelyn Montemayor