The population of the Philippines is largely Roman Catholic - I believe the official figure is 90 percent - although Islam still dominates on the island of Mindanao. In Cebu, the vast majority of the populace is Roman Catholic, but small congregations of Muslisms, Buddhists, and born-again Christians do exist.

It is well-known the world over that Filipinos tend to be intensely religious, constituting a disproportionately large number of pilgrims who visit Catholic holy sites in France, Portugal, Croatia, and, of course, Israel. In fact, Filipinos to some extent seem to consider themselves as staunch guardians of conservative values which the decadent societies of the West have failed to uphold.

Some of the more surprising experiences of life in Cebu for the foreigner fresh off the boat would be shopping at a supermarket at around 3 or 6 pm. All of a sudden, time will come to a halt; shoppers will stop moving, cashiers will fall into a trance, and baggers will freeze on the spot. Eventually you may cotton on to the fact that the muzak has been replaced by a prayer. After a few minutes the prayer will be over, everyone will cross themselves again, and the flurry of activity will resume as if nothing had happened.

Every Easter, scores of Filipinos flagellate themselves as part of a ritual which I assume has something to do with the suffering the founder of their religion went through in his final days. In Cebu, the place to be for self-flagellation is Carcar, where some people may actually nail themselves to a cross. That is just about the only thing happening in Easter; the city as a whole will shut down save for a few life-saving mechanisms. Radio stations go off the air, billboards are taken down, convenience stores shutter down and even the taxis disappear.

The dreariness, solemnity and dearth of activity in Easter is, however, more than counterbalanced by the duration, intensity, and scale of the celebration of Pasko, or Christmas, which starts in September and lasts well into the new year. If Sinulog didn't come around towards the end of January as something new to celebrate, Cebuanos might well be celebrating Christmas right up to April.

Christmas can, I suppose, be thought of as a fiesta - a celebration of the birth of a saint - with Jesus Christ as the ultimate saint. Hence, instead of the family-focused Christmas holiday in the West, Christmas in Cebu consists of a series of parties and devotional religious rituals. Not least among these are the Misa de Gallo, or Dawn Masses. For about a week leading up to Christmas day, the churches in Cebu start broadcasting religious songs at the ungodly hour of 3 AM as they start filling up with devout parishioners. Incredibly, the worshipers will go straight to work afterwards and repeat the whole experience the next day. It follows that, if your neurosurgeon is religious, the week before Christmas is definitely not the best time to get your lobotomy done.

Thanks to the overwhelming domination of Roman Catholicism, social occasions are largely defined by the requirements of that religion. First comes the Christening, then the marriage - usually at a church - and the funeral

Of the non-Catholic churches, one of the most significant is the Iglesia ni Kristo, a uniquely Filipino protestant movement with beautiful, soaring churches, manicured lawns, and intense rivalry with other protestant sects. Apparently the Iglesia ni Kristo have considerable political power, due to voting solidarity among the congregation, and the local Iglesia ni Kristo is a necessary stop for all aspiring politicians.

Giving Iglesia ni Kristo some competition are US imports such as the Church of Latter Day Saints, who follow pretty much the same formula, without the political activity. Cleverly, the Mormons have made sure that all of their churches have, in addition to huge well-kept grounds, a basketball court - and their baskets actually have nets.


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