Oroville Mercury-Register

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

- By Nicole Winfield and Karel Janicek

KOSICE, SLOVAKIA » 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 the eastern city of Kosice brought home just how excluded the Roma are: Slovak police and soldiers lined tall fencing along the main route into the neighborho­od, preventing residents who hadn’t registered in advance from accessing the small seating area for the event.

Despite the problemati­c optics, the visit was neverthele­ss a highlight of Francis’ 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 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 their own prejudices, obstacles and longstandi­ng mistrust of the Slovak majority, and try to integrate better so their children can have a brighter 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.

 ?? DARKO VOJINOVIC — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Pope Francis meets with young people at Lokomotiva Stadium in Kosice, Slovakia, on Tuesday.
DARKO VOJINOVIC — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Pope Francis meets with young people at Lokomotiva Stadium in Kosice, Slovakia, on Tuesday.

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