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When the Spanish arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, they found a lush tropical garden ripe for replanting. King Philip II had commanded his soldiers, administrators and religious zealots that there were to be no repetitions of the atrocities committed in the name of the cross throughout South and Central America. The garden and its natives were not to be harmed. But the guardian deities, bug-eyed spooks and phantoms that inhabited the spirit groves of this tropical Eden would be expelled and replaced with the placid features of the saints, the writhing body on the cross and the beatific image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.

The speed at which the new faith took root and the fervor with which it was practiced must have surprised even the Spaniards. Ferdinand Magellan, the navigator who led the Spanish mission to the Philippines, held the country’s first Catholic mass on Cebu Island on April 14, 1521, planting a cross on the spot to mark the conversion of the local ruler, Rajah Humabon, his family and about 800 of his followers. Believing the cross to possess miraculous powers, locals took small chips from it over the centuries until, to avoid it being whittled away altogether, a pavilion was built and the remains of the original incorporated into a new cross.

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