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The Philippines' President Benigno Aquino III has told Roman Catholics to be on high alert at the annual Black Nazarene procession in Manila tomorrow, warning that terrorists have threatened to attack.
Aquino called an emergency press conference to alert Filipinos that a number of suspect terrorists have been spotted in the capital ahead of tomorrow's celebrations, The Associated Press reported. He said there was a "heightened risk" of attacks, including bombings, but the government had decided not to cancel the procession, which is one of the largest religious events in the country's calendar.
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The suspects are Filipinos, Aquino said, but could not confirm whether they were linked to the Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf, based in the south of the country.
He did indicate, however, that there was a strong religious motive to the alleged plot:
"The sad reality of the world today is that terrorists want to disrupt the ability of people to live their lives in the ways they want to, including the freedom to worship and engage in community activities."
If possible, devotees are urged to stay away from the procession and celebrate the feast at home, the Manila Bulletin reported. However, the government recognizes that some will insist on attending "regardless of threat level," Aquino said, in which case the authorities will take all possible precautions to protect their safety.
The capital's entire 15,000-strong police force will be on high alert during tomorrow's procession, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, while soldiers and coast guards will be drafted in to assist with "security screening and threat detection measures."
Devotees have been warned not to bring cell phones or firecrackers, which are traditionally lit during the parade, and to keep children and elderly people away.
Up to 9 million Catholics from all over the world were expected to attend the annual Jan. 9 procession, in which a life-size statue of Jesus Christ is carried from Quirino Grandstand to Quiapo church in the center of Manila. Devotees believe the statue has the power to grant miracles when touched.
Tomorrow's event will start at 8 AM and last between 10 to 12 hours, according to the Philippine Star.
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