KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) – On Tuesday, Pope Francis called on Slovakia’s Roma to better integrate into the mainstream when it met the country’s most socially excluded minority group, which has long suffered discrimination, marginalization and poverty.
But somehow Francis’ visit to the Lunik IX settlement in Kosice brought home how exclusive they are: Slovak police and soldiers lined up high fencing along the main road into the neighborhood and prevented residents from accessing the small seating area.
However, the visit was one of the highlights of his four-day pilgrimage to Hungary and Slovakia. The trip marks his first outing since undergoing bowel surgery in July and the restart of his globetrotting papacy after a nearly two-year hiatus from the coronavirus.
Lunik XI is the largest of about 600 shabby, segregated settlements where the poorest 20% of Slovakia’s 400,000 Roma live. Most lack bases such as running water or sewage systems, gas or electricity.
Francis acknowledged that Slovakia’s Roma had long been subjected to “prejudices 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 the Slovak majority, many of whom would never consider visiting a neighborhood that until recently refused to go into the night.
But Francis, 84, urged residents to think of future generations to try to overcome the obstacles and long-standing mistrust of the Slovak majority and try to integrate better so that their children can have a better future.
“Their big dreams must not collide with obstacles we have traveled. They deserve a well-integrated and free life, Francis tells the audience. “Brave 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 firmly rooted in their own identity and have all the opportunities they desire.”
Roma have long suffered from racism and discrimination in Slovakia and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe and continue to face major barriers to employment and education. Distrust is mutual, with some Slovaks blaming the Roma for crime and Roma distrusting government institutions that have long failed them.
The inhabitants of Lunik IX have faced a complicated obstacle: the settlement was originally a neighborhood where Roma families lived with families of officials and police, an idea from the communist era to keep law and order. While the others left, the Kosice authorities decided to move Roma from other parts of the city to the neighborhood, which essentially confirmed its ghettoization and the forced separation of Roma from the ordinary.
“Marginalization of others accomplishes nothing,” Francis said. “Separating ourselves and other people eventually leads to anger. The path to peaceful coexistence is integration: an organic, gradual and vital process that begins with getting to know each other and then patiently grows and looks to the future. ”
Lunik IX Mayor Marcel Sana, who has lived since he was 2, has overseen a variety of public works since taking over in 2014, including improved sanitation and security. The local school is reputable and playgrounds have been opened for local children.
“When I took over the office, my vision was to make Lunik IX a quarter like everyone else in Kosice,” said Sana. “But after everything has been 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, edging fences that prevented residents from gaining access to the small reserved seating area.
Others watched the scene from their apartment windows.
Residents said on Tuesday that some things had already changed, both concrete and not.
“We have new roads, new stairs, they repaired everything,” says resident Alexander Horvath.
“People are different, you can feel the Holy Spirit in the air,” says resident Mario Tomi. “You can feel freedom in the air.”
But Francis also tried to highlight the example of Roma who have left or otherwise integrated more into Slovak society. His meeting included a resident – Ján Hero, 61, who married a Slovak woman – and a family of four who escaped from Lunik IX with the help of the Salesian priests who serve the community.
“Thanks to this, we can today offer our children a life that is happier and more dignified and more peaceful,” says René Harakaly. She noted that she still has family members in Lunik IX, adding: “We hope your visit brings new hope and a passion for an internal transformation for those who are here today.”
The “Pope of the Periphery” has long tried to meet society’s most marginal during his travels abroad and makes sure to always include visits to the slums, ghettos or prisons where he can offer words of encouragement and welcome.
His visit to Slovakia’s Roma was part of it, although the first pope to reach out to Europe’s Roma was Pope Paul VI. During a meeting in 1965 south of Rome, Paul insisted that they be fully part of the Church.
“In the Church you are not on the margins, but somehow you are at the center, you are in its heart,” Paul VI said then.
Francis repeated those words Tuesday, saying the church is their home.
“So I would say to you with all my heart: You are always welcome!”
Francis began his penultimate day by celebrating a Byzantine carnival in Presov, near Kosice, in recognition of the country’s Greek Catholic believers. During the mighty open-air fair, Francis took a swipe at European politicians who often hover at crosses to highlight their Christian credentials.
“Crucifixions are 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.”
The organizers said that more than 30,000 people participated, and they received communion via small spoons, as is done in the eastern rite.
Long before Francis’ arrival, they had filled the outdoor space when a choir sang hymns. They cheered and waved wildly with the yellow and white flags on the Holy See as Francis meandered through the crowd in his pop mobile.
“We came here at 3 in the morning to get the best place,” says Slavka Marcinakova, a local resident of Presov. “The Pope is coming to Slovakia – you only have such an opportunity once in a lifetime, we are so happy about it.”
Pastor Michal Ospodar, a Greek Catholic priest from Kosice, said Francis’ visit would encourage local believers who endured persecution under the atheist communist regime.
“Our church suffered much earlier because we were loyal to the pope,” he said. “Because of that, we are grateful that the Pope came to our region and that we can meet him in person.”
Janicek contributed from Prague, Czech Republic. AP visual journalists Adam Pemble, Andrea Rosa and Luigi Navarra contributed.