ROME— On the eve of Saturday’s “International Roma Day,” dedicated to the minority popularly know as “Gypsies,” one of the pope’s closest aides has said that they’re the most “marginalized and discriminated against” group in Europe, with little to no guarantee of fundamental human rights.
“The greatest problem that they have to face, beyond marginalization, is ‘anti-Gypsyism,’ a phenomenon in constant growth in our society and which, often, leads to violence and racism,” Cardinal Peter Turkson said on Friday, noting that he was inventing a new word, “Gypsyism.”
The prelate, picked by Pope Francis as head of the recently-created Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development, was speaking at an international conference called “Roma people in Europe- pastoral care and social integration.”
International Roma day is marked yearly on April 8.
Organized by the Hungarian embassy to the Holy See, the Rome-based conference brought together civil authorities, ambassadors and clerics to talk about the situation of the 12 million Roma, the word used across Europe to refer to the Gypsy population, and what could be done to help better integrate them, since most currently live in ghettos.
Turkson said that civil authorities and also the Catholic Church are called to be involved in the integration of the Roma, and the recognition of their equality when it comes to rights and duties.
This integration must be rooted in getting to know their culture and traditions, and it has to start by offering them the four pillars Turkson said they’re currently denied: “Education, employment, health care and dignified housing.”
As an example of struggles on those fronts, Turkson mentioned the fact that only 42 percent of Roma children in countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Lettonia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia attend primary school, and only 10 percent ever start secondary school.
To makes matters worse, he said, “there’s the phenomenon of early dropout because of discrimination, underage marriages and poverty.”
Echoing those who spoke before him, including famed Roma violinist Maga Zoltan, Turkson said education is the key for everything else. Without formation, he explained, youth cannot get access to a dignified job, hence are not able to afford housing, healthcare and other services.
However, the cardinal didn’t put all the pressure on the surrounding society to help the Roma, but challenged the group too. They’re called, he said, to respond accordingly to what’s offered to them, and to take the initiative, particularly when it comes to their young people.
The Roma, he said, are to be made “the real protagonist of the process of social, cultural and ecclesial integration.”
Among the speakers at the conference were many European ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, who shared the experiences in their country, including the UK’s Sally Axworthy and Eduard Habsburg-Lotheringen of Hungary, who organized the event.
Franz Salm-Reiffersheidt, ambassador at large for the Roma people of the Sovereign Military order of Malta, said that the word “Roma” actually means “men” in Romanes, which is the language most speak. He added that for this reason, he prefers the word Gypsy, but, at the end of the day, it’s a “question of dignity to use the word, which the person I talk to wants to hear.”
Reiffersheidt was tasked with giving an overview of the situation of the Roma, which he did by replying to five simple questions which, he said, most people can’t answer: “Where do they come from, how many live in Europe, do they have their own language, do they have their own religion, and what is the meaning of the word ‘Roma’?”
The group is originally from India, he said, leaving the country in the 1600s. For a long time most lived in Greece, Albania, Romania and other Eastern European countries, where they were treated as slaves until 1856.
Despite their deep European roots, Roma are still treated as foreigners in most places, with many still leading nomadic lives, and with hundreds of thousands still living in camps.
“So why are they are still not accepted and segregated? It’s been 600 years!” Reifferscheidt said rhetorically. “Forget them, it’s hopeless, they don’t want to be integrated,” is what he hears most of the time, he said.
He acknowledged that it’s partially true.
“As long as they lived as nomads and traveled from one place to another, it was not possible to integrate them,” the ambassador explained. “They didn’t live in stable settlements, the children didn’t go to school, they had a different culture and- don’t forget- a different color.”
Reifferscheidt regretted that today, no one cares about their background, professions or skills, nor about the fact that 95 percent of them don’t travel anymore. He said that most Roma today live in “shockingly deprived settlements, without electricity or running water, and the rate of illiteracy is extremely high.”
Roma today believe that the rest of society doesn’t want to integrate them, moved by prejudice to define them: They steal, don’t work, smell or are aggressive.
“But I don’t accept these statements,” he said. “If we believe in the dignity of each person, the question is not IF we should do something for their integration, but how.”
In May 2011, the European Union began implementing a set of guidelines on “Roma integration,” which states that all countries must show, by 2020, improvements in the integration process of these 12 million people, based on the four pillars Turkson said they’re still being denied: Education, employment, health and housing.
Friday’s conference showed that many European governments and religious bodies are taking steps, but high illiteracy and unemployment rates among the Roma suggest much still needs to be done.