Pope visit a sign of inclusion for Slovakia’s excluded Roma

Pope Francis on Tuesday urged Slovakia’s Roma to integrate better into the mainstream as he met with the country’s most socially excluded minority group, who have long suffered discrimination, marginalization and poverty.

But in some ways Francis’ visit to the Lunik IX settlement in Kosice brought home just how excluded they are: Slovak police and soldiers lined tall fencing along the main route into the neighborhood, preventing residents from accessing the small seating area.

The visit, though, was nevertheless one of the highlights of his four-day pilgrimage to Hungary and Slovakia. The trip marks his first outing since undergoing intestinal surgery in July and the restart of his globetrotting papacy after a nearly two-year coronavirus hiatus.

Lunik XI is the biggest of about 600 shabby, segregated settlements where the poorest 20% of Slovakia’s 400,000 Roma live. Most lack basics such as running water or sewage systems, gas or electricity.

Francis acknowledged Slovakia’s Roma had long been subject to “prejudice and harsh judgments, discriminatory stereotypes, defamatory words and gestures,” and even misunderstandings on the part of the Catholic Church. His visit alone could help change attitudes among Slovakia’s majority, many of whom would never think to visit a neighborhood that until recently police refused to enter at night.

But Francis, 84, urged the residents to think of future generations in trying to overcome the obstacles and longstanding mistrust of the Slovak majority and try to integrate better so their children can have a better future.

“Their great dreams must not collide with barriers that we have erected. They deserve a well-integrated and free life,” Francis told the crowd. “Courageous decisions must be made on behalf of our children: to promote their dignity, to educate them in such a way that they can grow up solidly grounded in their own identity and be given every opportunity they desire.”

Roma have long suffered racism and discrimination in Slovakia and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, and continue to face huge hurdles in employment and education. The mistrust is reciprocal, with some Slovaks blaming the Roma for crime and Roma distrusting state institutions that have long failed them.

The residents of Lunik IX have faced a compounded hurdle: The settlement was originally a neighborhood where Roma families lived alongside the families of service members and police officers, a communist-era idea to keep law and order. While the others left, Kosice authorities decided to move Roma from other parts of the city to the neighborhood, essentially confirming its ghettoization and the forced separation of Roma from the mainstream.

“Marginalizing others accomplishes nothing,” Francis said. “Segregating ourselves and other people eventually leads to anger. The path to peaceful coexistence is integration: an organic, gradual and vital process that starts with coming to know one another, then patiently grows, keeping its gaze fixed on the future.”

Lunik IX mayor Marcel Sana, a resident since he was 2, has overseen a host of public works since taking over in 2014, including improving sanitation and security. The local school is well-regarded, and playgrounds have opened for local children.

“When I took over the office, my vision was to make Lunik IX a quarter like all others in Kosice,” Sana said. “But after everything was neglected for 20 or 30 years, we need time to make it happen.”

Even before Francis arrived, police and soldiers stood guard along the main road into town, lining fences that kept out residents who weren’t given access to the small reserved seating area.

Others watched the scene from their apartment windows.

Residents said Tuesday that some things had already changed, both tangible and not.

“We have new roads, new stairs, they repaired everything,” said resident Alexander Horvath.

“People are different, you can feel in the air the Holy Spirit,” said resident Mario Tomi. “You can feel freedom in the air.”

But Francis also sought to highlight the example of Roma who had left or otherwise integrated more fully into Slovak society. His encounter featured one resident — Ján Hero, 61, who married a Slovak woman — and a family of four who got out of Lunik IX with the help of the Salesian priests who minister to the community.

“Thanks to this, we can today offer our children a life that’s happier and more dignified and peaceful,” said René Harakaly. Noting that she still has family members in Lunik IX, she added: “We hope that your visit brings a new hope and passion for an internal transformation to those here today.”

The “pope of the peripheries” has long sought to meet with society’s most marginal during his foreign trips, making sure to always include visits to slums, ghettos or prisons where he can offer words of encouragement and welcome.

His visit to Slovakia’s Roma was part of that, though the first pope to reach out to Europe’s Roma was Pope Paul VI. During a 1965 encounter south of Rome, Paul insisted that they were fully a part of the church.

“In the church, you aren’t on the margins, but in some way you are at the center, you are in its heart,” Paul VI said then.

Francis repeated those words Tuesday and said the church is their home.

“So I would say to you with my whole heart: You are always welcome!”

Francis started his penultimate day by celebrating a Byzantine rite Mass in Presov, near Kosice, in recognition of the country’s Greek-Catholic believers. During the chant-filled, open-air Mass, Francis took a swipe at European politicians who often brandish crosses to emphasize their Christian credentials.

“Crucifixes are found all around us: on necks, in homes, in cars, in pockets,” he said. “Let us not reduce the cross to an object of devotion, much less to a political symbol, to a sign of religious and social status.”

Organizers said more than 30,000 people attended, and they received the Eucharist via small spoons, as is done in the eastern rite.

Well before Francis’ arrival they had filled the outdoor site as a choir sang hymns. They cheered and wildly waved the yellow and white flags of the Holy See as Francis looped through the crowd in his popemobile.

“We came here at 3 a.m. to get the best spot,” said Slavka Marcinakova, a local resident from Presov. “Pope coming to Slovakia — you have an opportunity like this only once in a lifetime, we are so happy for that.”

The Rev. Michal Ospodar, a Greek-Catholic priest from Kosice, said Francis’ visit would encourage the local faithful who endured persecution during the atheist communist regime.

“Our church suffered a lot in the past because we were loyal to the pope,” he said. “Because of that we feel thankful that the pope came to our region and that we can meet him in person.”

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Janicek contributed from Prague, Czech Republic. AP visual journalists Adam Pemble, Andrea Rosa and Luigi Navarra contributed.

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