Christianity in the Philippines

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The Philippines is the fifth largest Christian country, with about 93% of the population being adherents. It is also one of two predominantly Roman Catholic nations in Asia (the other being East Timor), and is the third largest Catholic country in the world.

An estimated 92.5% of Filipinos are Christians which consists of 80.9% Roman Catholic, 2.8% Evangelical, 2.3% Iglesia ni Cristo, 2% Aglipayan, and 4.5% other Christian groups including other Protestant denominations (Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, Methodist, and Seventh Day Adventist) as well as Orthodox. In the southern Philippines (especially in Mindanao Island) roughly 5% of the population is Muslim; 1.8% of the entire population adheres to other independent religions, while 0.7% are irreligious.


In 1521, the Portuguese navigator and explorer Ferdinand Magellan under the service of Spain came across the Philippines while searching for the Spice Islands. Ferdinand Magellan and his men landed in Cebu Island in central Philippines.

At this time period, almost nothing was known to the West of the Philippines and so information on most pre-Hispanic societies in the islands date to the early period of Spanish contact. Most Philippine communities, with the exception of the Muslim sultanates in the Sulu Archipelago and Mindanao, were fairly small without a great deal of centralized authority. This absence of centralised power meant that a minority of Spanish explorers were able to convert larger numbers of indigenous peoples than attempting such in larger, more organised, dominions such as the Indianised or Theravada Buddhist kingdoms in mainland Southeast Asia, the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago.

With his arrival in Cebu on March 17, 1521, his first attempt was to colonise the islands and to Christianise its inhabitants. The story goes that Magellan met with Rajah Humabon, ruler of the island of Cebu, who had an ill grandson. Magellan (or one of his men) was able to cure or help the young boy, and in gratitude Humabon allowed 800 of his subjects to be baptised en masse. In order to achieve this, Spain had three principal objectives in its policy towards the Philippines: the first was to secure Spanish control and acquisition of a share in the spice trade; use the islands in developing contact with Japan and China in order to further Christian missionaries’ efforts there; and lastly to spread their religion.

After Magellan died, the Spanish later sent Miguel López de Legazpi. He arrived in Cebu from New Spain (now Mexico), where Spain introduced Christianity and colonisation in the Philippines took place. He then established the first Permanent Spanish Settlement in Cebu in 1565. This settlement became the capital of the new Spanish colony, with Legazpi as its first governor. After Magellan, Miguel López de Legazpi conquered the Islamic Kingdom of Maynila in 1570. The Spanish missionaries were able to spread Christianity in Luzon and the Visayas but the diverse array of ethno-linguistic groups in the highland areas of Luzon avoided Spanish annexation owing to their remote and difficult mountainous region. Sultanates in Mindanao retained the Islamic faith, which had been present in the southern Philippines since some time between the 10th and 12th century, and had slowly spread north throughout the archipelago, particularly in coastal areas. This resistance to Western intrusion makes this story an important part of the nationalist history of the Philippines. Many historians have claimed that the Philippines peacefully 'accepted' Spanish rule; the reality is that many insurgencies and rebellions continued on small scales in different places through the Hispanic colonial period.

Important Traditions

Most Filipinos are very religious, the belief in God permeating many aspects of life. Christians celebrate important holidays in many different ways, the most important of which are Christmas, Lent and Holy Week, All Souls' Day, as well as many local fiestas honouring patron saints and especially the Virgin Mary. Filipinos residing in Metro Manila and occasionally those overseas often return to their respective home provinces and towns to observe these holidays with their birth families, much like the practise in Mainland China for traditional holidays. Filipino infants and individuals are more often than not expected to be baptised as Christians to affirm faith in Christ and their belonging to a specific denomination.

Christmas in the Philippines is the biggest holiday, and one of its most beloved rites is the Simbang Gabi, a series of Masses held before dawn in the nine days preceding Christmas Day. Devotees attend each Mass (which is different from the Advent liturgy of the day elsewhere) in anticipation of Christ's birth and to honour the Virgin Mary, along with the belief that completing all nine days ensures that a favour requested of God is granted. After the service, worshippers eat or purchase a breakfast of traditional delicacies that are sold in the churchyards, the most common being puto bumbong and bibingka.

The second most important religious period is Lent, which commemorates Christ's Passion, Death, and ending with Easter, which celebrates his Resurrection. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, the season has a sombre mood that becomes more pronounced as Semana Santa (Holy Week) arrives. Holy Week in the Philippines is a period especially rich in centuries-old traditions, which display the influence of indigenous customs and beliefs that date back to the pre-Christian period.

Several of these include the non-stop melodic recital of the Pasyón, a 17th-century epic poem which narrates Biblical stories with focus on the life, suffering, and death of Christ. The devotion is adapted from the ancient Filipino art of orally transmitting poems through chanting, and is usually performed by a group of individuals who each chant in shifts to ensure its continuous recital. Theatre troupes or towns meanwhile stage Passion plays called Senákulo, which are similar to their European counterparts in that there is no universal text, that actors and crew are often ordinary townsfolk, and that it covers other Biblical scenes related to Salvation History.

The Visita Iglesia is the recitation of the Stations of the Cross throughout several churches (often numbering seven) on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Processions meanwhile are a staple throughout the week, the most important being the one on Holy Wednesday, the reenactment of the burial of Christ (where the Santo Entierro image is paraded as though for a funeral) and the joyous Salubong that precedes the Easter Mass.

Fasting and abstinence is undertaken, while traditional taboos are still enforced, usually after 3:00 p.m. PHT (15:00 UTC+8) of Good Friday, all through Black Saturday until the Easter Vigil. Television and radio limit broadcasting hours and air only religious programming; newspapers are also on hiatus, while shopping malls and most restaurants are closed to allow employees to return home. Popular holiday spots such as Boracay often dispense with these customs, while many people prefer to travel abroad instead of observing traditional rites.

Other observances include the Flores de Mayo (literally, "Flowers of May"), when people decorate small altars with flowers to honour the Virgin Mary, and hold the Santacruzan, which is part procession honouring the finding of the Cross (on its old Galician date), and part fashion show for a town's maidens. January itself has two important feasts dedicated to Jesus: January 9 is the Feast of the Translation of the Black Nazarene, which is returned to its shrine in Quiapo Church in a day-long procession of millions; and every Third Sunday of January is the Feast of the Santo Niño de Cebú (Holy Child Jesus), the largest celebration being held in Cebu City. In addition, most any place that has a patron saint (often towns, villages, Catholic schools and almost every church) holds a fiesta, where the patrons' image is processed and grand parades are held, traditional foods are prepared, funfairs erected, and live entertainment is held.


  1. Most Christians reside in the United States with 246.8 million, followed by Brazil with 175.8 million, Mexico with 107.8 million, and Russia with 105.2 million.


  1. "Philippines still top Christian country in Asia, 5th in world". Inquirer Global Nation. December 21, 2011. Retrieved on 2 April 2013.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. "Philippines still top Christian country in Asia, 5th in world". Inquirer Global Nation. December 21, 2011. 
  3. "Religion - Christianity". Stanford School of Medicine. Retrieved 22 April 2013. 
  4. Russell, S.D. (1999) "Christianity in the Philippines". Retrieved 2 April 2013. 
  5. "The Early Spanish Period, 1521-1762". Matthew Blake. Retrieved 2 April 2013. 
  6. "Religion in the Philippines". Asia Society. Retrieved 2 April 2013. 
  7. Russell, S.D. (1999) "Christianity in the Philippines". Retrieved 2 April 2013. 
  8. "Filipino Culture and Tradition". My Philippine Lifestyles. Retrieved 22 April 2013. 
  9. Russell, S.D. (1999) "Christianity in the Philippines". Retrieved 2 April 2013. 

Further reading

  • Fenella Cannell, 1999, Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • David J. Steinberg, 1982, The Philippines: A Singular and a Plural Place. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

See also

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