BEIRUT: For Lebanon’s Filipino community, the pope’s Sunday mass was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the leader of their church in the flesh, and they turned out in force to rally behind Benedict XVI in Beirut.
Nearly 83 percent of the Philippines’ population is Catholic, and many of the 30,000 Filipinos working in homes and businesses in Lebanon still strive to maintain their faith far from home.
One organization that helps them do this is the Afro-Asian Migrant Center at St. Joseph’s church in Tabaris, which offers pastoral and spiritual support for the area’s migrant population – mostly Filipino domestic workers.
In the weeks leading up to Sunday, the center’s coordinator, Father Martin McDermott, distributed nearly 800 tickets for the event to the migrants who attend his center, inviting them to celebrate the mass together.
As the sun rose over Tabaris early Sunday morning, some 150 Filipinos, as well as a handful of migrants from African and South Asian countries, headed to the Waterfront in high spirits, wearing shirts bearing pictures of the pope and carrying banners welcoming him to Lebanon.
The group had arrived at 6:30 a.m., patiently enduring the glaring heat and thronging crowds to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.
At a lunch at St. Joseph’s after the ceremony, they told The Daily Star that the service had been well worth the wait.
Nerma, a Filipina who has lived and worked in Ashrafieh for eight years, spoke of her own joy at the mass, saying; “It’s beautiful, of course. It’s the first time I have seen him, and when he was giving the mass you felt very near to God.”
Others said that the pope’s visit had comforted Filipino migrants worried about rising tensions in the region.
Eppie Ballouz, who moved to Beirut from the Philippines in 1992 with her Lebanese husband and children, said that migrants were particularly affected by the security situation.
“With all the problems going on around us – the unrest in the region – you watch the television and see the fighting here and the chaos there, but he brought us a message of peace,” she said.
Ludi Iriola echoed this feeling, praising the timing of Pope Benedict’s visit: “It’s the right time because of what’s happening in the Middle East. For Lebanon to be chosen is a grace and a blessing.”
Iriola had traveled from the Philippines specifically to see the pope. She had lived in Beirut until 2006 with her husband, who works for the U.N., when she was evacuated during the bombing.
She told The Daily Star that the effort had been worth it, saying: “It is nothing compared to the joy that the pope has given us.”
However, some Filipinos working in Lebanese households were not able to attend Sunday’s mass. Mary Rose Palma, 31, a maid in a Beiruti household, was given the day off by her employer but said some of her compatriots had not been so lucky.
“I have a friend who does not get a day off, so she could not come to the mass ... She is a babysitter, and her employer would not allow her to come,” she said.
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon have little legal protection, which means that their basic employment rights are often neglected.
Nevertheless, Palma was glowing about her own experience at the waterfront Sunday.
“It was an unforgettable experience: It was tiring, but refreshing ... No regrets. Then tomorrow it’s back to normal,” she said.