ROME – Few things unite the people of the relatively young country of Italy like an unreasonable obsession for soccer, a reverential love for food, and a shared, unabashed hatred for gypsies.

It’s no wonder then that Pope Francis’s yearly appointment with the Roma and Sinti peoples, commonly known as gypsies or “zingari” in Italian, has raised more than a few eyebrows and drawn considerable criticism in the bel paese.

“There are second-class citizens, it is true. But the real second-class citizens are those who discard people: these people are second-class, because they do not know how to embrace,” Francis said during the May 9 audience at the Vatican.

Being referred to as second-class citizens may not reverberate well among the countless Italians who generally view gypsies as robbers, delinquents and charlatans. About 86 percent of Italians hold a negative view of Roma people, making Italy first in Europe in its dislike for gypsies, a 2015 Pew study found.

Today, gypsies represent the largest minority in Europe – counting over 12 million people, though figures are hardly exact. The countries where they are most highly represented, such as Bulgaria and Macedonia, were recently visited by Francis, who will also meet a Roma delegation during his papal visit to Romania at the end of May.

Francis’s words and encounters with European gypsies suggest that he has taken on Saint Pope Paul VI’s call to the Roma people: “You are in the heart of the Church.”

Even as racism and the stigma associated with gypsies grows, the pope makes a clear statement to stand at their side.

“It used to be better before, now things are getting worse,” said Anna, a Roma woman born in Rome who did not wish to reveal her real name, in a May 17 interview with Crux.

Anna’s impressions derive from the rhetoric she hears used by media and the way gypsies are treated on the street.

“They say gypsies are all the same, but it’s not true, just as Italians are not all the same. There are those who are criminals and those who are not. Same thing with gypsies,” she added.

Every Italian knows the dread of seeing a group of gypsy women hop on the bus. While carrying sniffling infants and wearing long skirts, they usually walk away with phones or wallets lifted off distracted tourists or tired employees.

Anna has been on those buses with gypsies, and said she has been warned by locals to clutch her purse. Sometimes she said she answered, “I’m also a gypsy,” only to be looked at with confusion, her appearance and demeanor not registering as Roma.

“Had I been dressed like them, would they have drawn away from me too?” Anna asked.

“You have to hide who you are. I want to yell out that I’m a gypsy, but I can’t without that guy threatening to hurt me and the other saying, ‘I’ll burn you.’”

“You live a life that is not your own,” she said.

Anna works as a volunteer serving meals to the needy with the Community of Sant’ Egidio, an Italian-based Catholic movement that has been active in Roma outreach for the past 50 years. The center offers documentation assistance, food and hygiene services and a much-in-demand hairdresser and barber.

One of its most successful endeavors has been the “School of Peace,” an after-school program that opens its doors to all the children of immigrants, gypsies or people in need to offer homework assistance and childcare. Anna was one of those children.

“It really hurts the heart to read so many bad stories in the paper,” said Paola Armandola, a volunteer at Sant’ Egidio with 25 years of experience assisting Roma people. “The community has always decided to look at people, and especially children, with love and through the hope of mothers who try and do their best for the future of their children.”

Armandola explained that despite more and more Roma people becoming integrated and finishing their education, the stigma remains the same.

“The biggest problem is that they cannot say they are Roma,” she said, adding that especially for those who are integrated, and would serve as a good example, there is a greater risk by saying they are Roma because of their work environment or their children’s school might resent it.

“Being with Roma people you become aware of this very persistent prejudice, which is also unfortunately coming back into fashion,” she added.

Despite the Roma first coming to Italy over 700 years ago, a nomad people mainly escaping war and famine in the Balkans, they were never accepted or integrated on the peninsula. In fact, their experience could easily be used as a framework for what happens when mass migration is met with segregation and lack of integration policies.

Roma people in Italy are usually amassed into unhygienic emergency camps, with high levels of illiteracy and catastrophically high unemployment rates.

Italy’s ruling populist coalition has vowed to “close all Roma camps.” Anna lost her house and her belongings due to an eviction from her camp. She later lost her job when she had to explain what happened to her employer.

“Every time is like a deportation, and your whole life is interrupted,” Armandola explained, adding that this has greatly stalled integration over the years.

Recently, the assignment of a council flat to a gypsy led to a verbally aggressive protest led by Italy’s far-right factions. “I am suffering,” Francis told Roma people during his audience with them shortly after the event, “because this is not civility.”

By listening to Francis’s words, she said, “they finally felt closeness. Usually many Roma feel – beyond words, but on their skin – the contempt of others.”

According to Gemma, another Roma woman and mother of four who wishes to remain anonymous, the prejudice against gypsies “has grown enormously” in Italy over the years. What this contempt doesn’t take into account, she said, is that people can change.

“My mother made mistakes in the past, but now she’s been working honestly for the past 15 years,” she told Crux May 17. “She gave us a future.”

Her mother was at the papal audience in early May, Gemma said, and “returned home all happy. She was so joyful and said she felt very loved.”

In previous audiences with the Roma people, a tradition started by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, Francis invited them “to share their culture” with the world. While for many Italians gypsy culture is not much more than stealing, Armandola suggests another, and somewhat ironic, aspect of Roma culture: Welcoming.

“Roma are very hospitable,” she said. “If there’s a wedding and you arrive, they will surely offer you something and there’s no way you will leave without an extra four pounds. The guest is sacred.”

Follow Claire Giangravè on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave

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