By Agence France-Presse and U.S. News Agency / Asian
They have all heard stories of foreign housemaids being abused in Lebanon, and some may even have suffered themselves, but on Sunday Asians and Africans set such demons aside and joined in joyously as Pope Benedict XVI celebrated mass in Beirut.
Lebanon has earned such a bad reputation over mistreatment of domestics that Madagascar, the Philippines and Ethiopia have all stopped their citizens from travelling to the country to work.
If most maids are well treated, others have been virtually enslaved. Their passports have been confiscated on arrival by their employers, and they have been beaten, humiliated, not paid or not given days off.
But among the estimated 350,000 people gathered on Beirut’s waterfront on Sunday to join Benedict in the last mass of his three-day visit, groups of Africans and Asians could be seen celebrating as well.
Amid the festive atmosphere, they sang melodies from home and danced, cheering the pontiff as fervently, if not more, than the Lebanese among whom they moved.
Among them were two young men from South Sudan, one waving the country’s flag and the other holding a banner saying: “We hope you visit our new country, South Sudan, to have your blessing. We love you, pope.”
Derly, a 30-year-old Filipina, a small golden cross hanging round her neck, exclaimed: “I am so happy. This is the first time that I see the pope.”
“I will pray for my family, whom I haven’t seen in two years,” she said, highlighting the pain of separation that so many of these women feel.
Another Filipina, Joy, aged 43, echoed that sentiment.
“I would so much have loved for my family to be with me to share this moment, but the Philippines is so far away and my country has imposed restrictions because of the abuse.”
But with a bandana round her head bearing the words “Philippines love Benedict XVI” and her broad smile, there was no doubt how she felt.
And one of her compatriots shouted out defiantly: “Sunday is our day off, but even if they hadn’t given it to me I would have come anyway.”
Mary, another Filipina, who is married to a Lebanese, wore a T-shirt advertising a centre that helps foreign workers who have been victimised.
“I came to see the pope and to get his blessing; here I feel in communion with the whole world,” she said.
That was echoed by Josephine, a 20-year old Senegalese.
“This makes me feel good, it’s a joy to be here among the Lebanese. They chant, we sing. We feel a bond.”
There is also a down side, however.
“We just want them to accept us as we are,” she added, perhaps thinking of how some clubs ban Asians and Africans from their swimming pools because some members might feel uncomfortable.
But Raymond Aoun, a Lebanese shopkeeper standing nearby, was thrilled.
“Today, with the pope, we are all the same community,” he said.
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