NICOSIA (Reuters Life!) - Miles away from home, Cyprus’s tiny Catholic community of mainly migrant workers is getting ready for a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see Pope Benedict on his visit to the island in June.
The island is home to a large Filipino and Sri Lankan population, who left their homelands for the small island of Cyprus which stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
Many of them work as domestic help and look forward to their weekly get together at Sunday mass.
Scarlet Tugbo, 38 years old from the Philippines has been in Cyprus for 13 years and is part of the media and communications team preparing for the Papal visit.
“I‘m so excited. I wish I can touch him, I can hug him. I am speechless, I don’t know my feeling when I see him. It’s a big pleasure. I hope we can enjoy this event,” she said.
Benedict is visiting Cyprus to follow in the footsteps of Saint Paul the apostle, who preached on the island in 47 AD.
The island’s Greek Cypriot population are predominantly members of the Greek Orthodox faith, but the numbers of Catholics have swelled in recent years as more and more migrants move to the island.
Government data put the number of Filipinos and Sri Lankans at 22,000 strong in April 2009. They are evenly spread out across Cyprus.
In the capital Nicosia, many live in the old Venetian-walled part of town, close to the Catholic church. Men and women cram into old, decrepit buildings, some living with up to 10 people sleeping in a room.
“Many of the migrants have said they preferred to come to Cyprus because it is a Christian country and is easier for them to profess their faith - even if they earn less money,” said Father Umberto Barato, parish priest of the Holy Cross Church and the charge d‘affaires of the Holy See.
From strolling around the main bus depot at the mouth of the old town on the weekend, it is plain to see that Sunday is definitely “me time” for the migrants, who mill about the streets browsing market stalls, catching up on the gossip with their fellow compatriots, or holding picnics at the nearby park.
And Sunday mass at the Catholic church of the Holy Cross, its sandstone gothic-like structure nestled in a corner of the U.N. bufferzone, is very popular.
Father Umberto puts the number of faithful attending the four masses on a Sunday at least 1,500. “People stand outside because their is no space...it is not just a church but a point of encounter.”
Editing by Paul Casciato