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The search for a dignity that is denied

· A conversation with Archbishop Antonio Maria Vegliò on the eve of the Holy Father’s meeting with gypsies of Europe ·

When a few months ago the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People asked the Pope to grant an audience to a group of European gypsies on pilgrimage to Rome on 11 and 12 June, the estimated number of participants was around 1,000 people. On 3 June a communiqué from the Vatican Dicastery announcing the event said that 1,400 representatives of European gypsies were to be received by the Pope.

Then on Thursday, 9 June, a change in the venue of the meeting was decided: no longer the Apostolic Palace but the Paul VI Audience Hall because, the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household explained in a note, “the number had risen to 2,000 with the possibility of a further increase”. All this serves to highlight the fervour of Europe’s gypsy people on the eve of the Saturday meeting with Benedict XVI. “The number of those asking to meet the Pope is increasing from one day to the next”, Archbishop Antonio Maria Vegliò, President of the Vatican dicastery, told L’Osservatore Romano in this interview. “In this way they express their wish to be heard and to inspire understanding. They see the Pontiff as the person who can give their integration into society a new impetus”.

Whenever gypsies are mentioned, they are certainly still referred to today with diffidence, if not actual contempt. At times, even the word “gypsy” is used pejoratively. How can these attitudes be overcome?

It is true. In the historical and social contexts there is one constant: the age-old rejection of and discrimination against gypsies, expressed in different and sometimes tragic forms. Events such as slavery in Romania, the Holocaust under the Nazis and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans have not affected all the Roma, yet they have scarred the collective awareness. And the feeling of marginalization still continues, perpetuated by many forms of harassment. It is essential to observe that the gypsy culture was born and developed in this context of violent rejection and also withdrawal, an obligatory condition for its survival. This development created and maintained a distance and misunderstanding between the Roma and society which continues to stigmatize them, labelling them with a “bad reputation”, even more heavily accentuated by the political and juridical evolution of states.

It is dramatic to note that some forms of inappropriate behaviour among Roma become the object of generalizations which, at times, are alibis that blur the requirements of justice and divinity. It is important that in our approach to this issue we rid ourselves of these tendencies, which are a denial of the values affirmed by Christ. Among other things, the “Guidelines for a Pastoral Care of Gypsies”, which our dicastery published on 8 December 2005, explains that the term “gypsy” refers to various ethnic groups. In Western Europe, in several parts of Russia, in Asia and in America, the term “gypsy” is better accepted and at times also more appropriate. In Central and Eastern Europe the term “Roma” is widely used in reference to these peoples, since for many Roma and Sinti the term “gypsy” has a pejorative meaning because it is linked with negative and paternalistic stereotypes of them.

What do our societies lack that would permit them at last to achieve the integration of gypsies?

What is lacking is primarily an authentic spirit of solidarity in a context of hope. We would like to assure gypsies that they are the focus of the Church’s concern, since they are children of the same Father. In fact, they are often relegated to the fringes of society and discriminated against, but continue to occupy the place to which they are entitled, as Paul VI said, “in the heart of the Church”.

Moreover it is especially important to encourage young gypsies to make a concrete and permanent commitment to improve the living conditions of their communities and to defend their dignity and rights. At the same time it is also necessary to remind them of their duty to take on all obligations that responsible participation in social, political and ecclesial life entails. In the third place, it is necessary that all people of good will and host communities unfold paths of trust and respect, of reciprocal understanding and forgiveness. Finally, states must adopt legislation that truly safeguards the rights of gypsy populations and protects them from discrimination, racism and marginalization. In short, it is a matter of renewing the recommendation of open and constructive dialogue between the gypsy representatives and the indigenous communities.

What in our society prevents them from being mediators to find ways to dialogue and to possible coexistence with other cultures?

Today there are many gypsy communities and individuals who have developed an awareness of the need and the desire to play a lead role in the decision-making and political processes that concern the human and social promotion of their races. Indeed, it is not easy to be able to speak of a constructive future for gypsies if they are not fully involved in the politics that concern their existence. They are convinced that there can be no effective international or national strategies for achieving this without the gypsies’ own participation in their preparation and implementation. This awareness is expressed in ways unlike those of the past; it is better suited to cultural and political exchanges with the majority society.

Greater commitment must be devoted to training gypsy mediators who can serve as channels of communication between their own communities, the institutions and the majority population, or as support for their peers in pursuing a sound professional training and uprooting the diffidence present in their communities, as well as the negative prejudices that are widely persistent in our societies.

The Church has done and continues to do a lot for the gypsy world. In your opinion, however, is their integration into the local ecclesial situation concrete or is it limited to assistance?

The Church has certainly gone beyond a presence of charitable or “sacramentalist” assistance, among gypsies. She is open to an explicit recognition of their dignity and an affirmation of their fundamental human rights. Thereby, she has contributed to a wider-ranging discovery of the problem and hence of the approach to it. We cannot forget that important positions have been taken in this regard.

What contribution can gypsies make to the Church’s mission?

They offer the positive values that belong to the gypsy populations, such as brotherly and generous hospitality, a deep sense of solidarity and a strong attachment to the faith and religion of their forebears. Then we must not undervalue the important work of evangelization and catechesis that many people dedicated to the pastoral care of gypsies carry out every day, but especially thanks to the consecrated gypsies. Not everyone may know that today there are about 100 priests, deacons, religious and sisters of gypsy origin.

Is the issue of gypsies treated adequately at the international level?

If we are to speak of authentic acceptance — also in terms of integration and cultural encounter at the national and international levels — we need a great shift in mentalities, also in the civil sector. Acceptance actually requires consideration of the identity and dignity of others and the consequent commitment to guaranteeing them a dignified life and respect for their basic rights. The international community has made considerable progress. It is only right to recognize the role played in this regard by the Council of Europe and other international entities and likewise the involvement of states. Nevertheless strategic cooperation is as yet insufficient and a better use of the instruments available to the international community is certainly necessary.

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