A question of security
Filipinos take enormous pride in the Philippines being hailed as the only Catholic country in Asia, in a show of hubris that has, unfortunately, proved time and again that faith is stronger than reason.
A case in point is the annual Black Nazarene procession, where the tacit goal appears to be rustling up the largest crowd in recent history and the longest procession ever, no matter the cost. And the cost has been exorbitant: two men, one elderly and the other quite young, crushed under the weight of reckless fervor in last week’s procession, with the teenager’s death described by his mother as “painful but beautiful,” as “he was with God” when he tried to touch the Nazarene.
From all indications, such extreme manifestation of religious belief will similarly hound the visit of Pope Francis starting today, with the general public provided details more than it actually needs to know, including where he will stay, the number of police forces to be deployed and where, the placement of road blocks, barriers and CCTV cameras and how many, and sundry security measures that may make it easy for malcontents to fine-tune disruptive moves.
And then there’s that hubris again, the seemingly uncontrollable urge to break records and trump other countries even when it comes to religious events (as witness the Iglesia ni Cristo’s claim over the world’s biggest indoor arena). Already, it was mentioned in the coverage of the Pope’s visit to Sri Lanka that the Philippines was aiming to have the biggest gathering of the faithful for a papal visit in recent history—some 6 million supposedly expected, or a million more than that which turned out for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1995.
Such triumphalist moves may be shrugged off as just another instance of Filipinos getting carried away, but recent events show how religious fervor can play into the political agenda of certain groups.
Religion has always been the refuge of scoundrels who, in recent times, have spilled blood in France, Yemen and Nigeria, while claiming the carnage as proof of faith.
The calls for vigilance during the Pope’s visit come amid possible security threats because of recent terrorist incidents, including last week’s attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that saw 12 people killed and a number seriously injured. The Pope’s personal style, his definition of “papal outreach,” doesn’t help this “security nightmare” any, as he is known to wade into a crowd and press flesh. Known for eschewing protocol when it comes to security matters, the Pope has been described as “unpredictable,” which may well also describe Filipinos who proudly hoist the “uzisero” (kibitzer) flag in crowd situations.
Given that, it won’t be surprising if the ardent faithful jump security barriers (as happened during a past papal visit), throng the papal route, rush his escorts and security aides, and crowd the improvised open popemobile to get that requisite selfie with the Holy Father. With five to six million people to watch, crowd control may become an oxymoron in this case.
With such worrisome scenarios, President Aquino’s appeal to the nation gains crucial currency. In a video message, he called on Filipinos themselves to protect the Pope, as even the latter’s 6,000-strong security detail may need help in keeping an eye on dangerous elements in the crowd.
In huge gatherings such as may be generated by the papal visit, “chaos is possible even without any terrorism threat,” Mr. Aquino said, adding that the Filipinos’ cooperation in observing security protocol would go a long way to ensure the Pope’s safety.
“Every meeting brings risk. We want to lessen this risk on the Pope’s life and to balance [his] security [with] his wishes [to mingle with the crowd],” Mr. Aquino said. He reminded the public as well about the Philippines’ honor being at stake should anything happen to Pope Francis during his visit. Indeed, the 1970 attempt on the life of Pope Paul VI by a Bolivian painter at a Manila airport is often mentioned in the same breath as “security risks” in every papal visit.
The constant reminders on how Filipinos can ensure maximum sighting of the Pope while minimizing risks to him are correct and welcome as well, more so if these can be couched in inclusionary terms instead of dogmatic do’s and dont’s.
Because in the end, what matters is not whether one has proof of breathing the same air that Pope Francis did, but finding the grace and collective will to protect the man whose very presence spells “blessed.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.