By Carmel Crimmins
CUTUD, Philippines, Apr 14 (Reuters) Nine Filipinos were nailed to wooden crosses this Good Friday and scores more whipped their backs into a bloody pulp in a gory re-enactment of the death of Jesus Christ.
Frowned on by the Catholic Church, the annual spectacle in the small village of Cutud, about 80 km north of Manila, is just one of the most extreme examples of Philippine religious fervour this Easter.
Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her cabinet went on a two-day retreat ''to reflect on the suffering of Jesus Christ''.
Manila police officers acted as the 12 apostles in a series of Masses and on Easter Sunday, the northern town of Minalin will explode a life-size effigy of biblical traitor Judas.
Asia's only Roman Catholic nation, the Philippines has always shouted its faith from the rooftops. Literally, in some parts of Manila, where buildings are crowned with neon religious proverbs.
At street level, cars are decked out with miniature icons and rosary beads, government offices have shrines to Mary, and national newspapers feature daily extracts from the bible.
But, alongside this strong Catholic imagery is an urban society which talks openly about sex during its coffee breaks, uses birth control and smiles rather than frowns upon single mothers.
''The Philippines was a very conservative country, suddenly it became the opposite,'' said Muhammad A Soria, a former Catholic priest who converted to Islam in 2002. ''There has been an influx of modern ideas.'' Soria's experience as a parish priest in Kuwait in the 1990s impressed upon him how Muslim society interwove religion with daily life, a combination he feels is weakening in contemporary Philippines.
MORE REUTERS SI HT1440