efe-epaBy Sara Gómez Armas. San Fernando, The Philippines

A group of Filipinos on Friday held their annual reenactment of the biblical torture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, a show of penitence splattered with sweat and blood in which they seek to atone for their sins in front of thousands of spectators.

This year, the traditional event attracted some 20,000 people – a blend of the devout, the merely curious and tourists – to the northern city of San Fernando, located some 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) northwest of Manila.

"It's really painful, but once you're down there and see the expectant looks on people's faces, all the pain just vanishes," said Ruben Enaje, known as the "Jesus of Pampanga" for his recurring role playing the Christian messiah in the Passion play that takes place every year in San Fernando's working-class neighborhood of San Pedro Cutud.

Enaje, 59, has embodied the 1st-century Galilean preacher for the past 33 years.

He told EFE that he was starting to feel tired and old and had asked the event's organizers to begin the search for a replacement.

"When I'm on the cross I pray, I ask for health for me and for my entire family," Enaje explained. "Although today, I also prayed for a substitute to appear soon."

Following his eight-minute martyrdom on the large wooden cross, he received medical attention before donning a T-shirt sporting the face of his other idol: the Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

The Philippines is the most Catholic country in all of Asia, with more than 85 percent of the 106-million population adhering – at least nominally – to the authority of the Vatican, a sequel of more than three centuries of Spanish colonization.

Passion plays are ubiquitous and often bloody, as participants are subjected to painful flagellation and a select few are physically nailed to crosses.

Three others – including a woman – joined Enaje in being crucified under the searing midday sun that glared over San Pedro Cutud. These passionate crucifixions are also common occurrences in other areas of San Fernando, such as the districts of Santa Lucia and San Juan.

"After the entire calvary up to the cross, God willing, the pain will have abated and I'll feel purified," Enaje – who got sucked into this tradition back in 1985 after falling from the third floor of a building and surviving unharmed – had told EFE before the start.

He attributed the miraculous event to divine intervention and decided to adopt a personal appearance as similar as possible to the common iconography associated with Jesus of Nazareth and to be crucified every Good Friday, a tradition his grandfather had pioneered in San Fernando.

"I grew up with this and it fills me with pride to see how there are many young people, even children, who participate in the Maleldo (the local term for 'Easter') events," Enaje said.

Thanks to the crucifixions, the underdeveloped and nearly-forgotten neighborhood of San Pedro Cutud – which usually boasts some 12,000 residents – every year pulls in flocks of journalists and tens of thousands of visitors eager to witness the bloody spectacle.

"We arrived yesterday in Manila and we read about this Easter ritual in the newspaper," said Lydia Calo, a 34-year-old German tourist visiting the Philippines with her boyfriend. "So we decided to come to see first hand what these people are capable of doing for their beliefs."

After spending some days diving around some of the Philippines' idyllic islands, Eduardo, a Spanish photography aficionado, decided to spend his last 24 hours in the country documenting what he described as an "extreme tradition" and see something "new and extraordinary."

Crucifixions are the focus of all media attention during Easter season in the Philippines, where some devotees seek redemption by experiencing the torment Jesus is said to have undergone atop Mt Golgotha in their own flesh.

According to city officials in San Fernando, some 8,000 penitents inflicted harsh punishments upon themselves during the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday processions as a way to expiate their sins, keep a promise or ask for a miracle.

These penances consist of long, barefoot marches during which they either flagellate their own backs with bamboo whips or carry heavy wooden crosses on their shoulders.

Although they may seem ancient to the casual observer, these extreme rituals are a rather recent phenomenon: they started to crop up in the 1950s and are therefore somewhat frowned upon by Church authorities.