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Gypsies face hostility, poverty in Eastern Europe

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Usti nad Labem, Czech Republic

In mid-1999, Maticna Street on the edge of this dusty northern Bohemian town made its bid to become the symbol of post-communist Eastern Europe’s underside.

Here, city councilors decided to put up a wall to separate a grimy, unpainted tenement from the rest of the town. The reason: to keep at bay the dark-skinned Roma people -- more commonly known as Gypsies -- who occupy the building.

The wall quickly became a cause célèbre in the European media. To many, it was emblematic of the revival of racial and ethnic tribalism in the political void left by communism’s collapse. The parallelism was perfect: In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, allegedly heralding a new era of freedom and prosperity for Eastern Europe; in 1999, the Usti Wall went up, a symbol that for the ethnic minorities of the region, the new age might be even more hostile than the old.

Unlike its counterpart in Berlin, the Utsi Wall lasted only a few weeks; it was dismantled in late November 1999, after being condemned by Czech President Vaclav Havel and ruled illegal by the country’s parliament.

The reverberations, however, continue. The Catholic church here finds itself taking a lead role in efforts at healing.

Dominican Fr. Pavel Jancik, who helped mediate the dispute over the wall, doubts local Czechs are really hostile to Gypsies and insists Usti schools have good tolerance programs. With at least three Czech families living in the tenement, too, Jancik thinks the idea of a bitter racial divide is artificial.

After holding regular prayer meetings at Maticna Street, the Dominican hopes to set up a Catholic parish for the area. “Though few go to Mass regularly, they’re open to the church. But we can’t wait for them to come -- we have to go out to them,” Jancik said.

The Usti wall controversy follows a spate of violent attacks on Gypsies, who make up around 3 percent of the Czech Republic’s 10 million inhabitants. Roma women were pressured to accept sterilization here until the early 1990s; the country’s Civic Solidarity Movement claims to have documented two-dozen Gypsy murders in the past decade.

In 1997, the Czech government said it was taking “immediate steps” to ensure equal opportunities for the Roma, up to 90 percent of whom are unemployed and illiterate in some districts.

Tensions have been evident all over Eastern Europe. The Slavic word for Gypsies -- Tsigani -- means “untouchable” and dates from the 11th century, when Gypsies first reached Europe after migrating from the Indian Subcontinent. At 5 million, Eastern Europe’s Roma currently make up half the world’s total. After being assured housing and health care under communism, today they are the region’s largest, least organized and most disliked minority.

Hungary’s Gypsies, officially put at 500,000, have increased by half since the 1970s. They have a school dropout rate of 40 percent. Bulgaria’s 800,000 comprise 8 percent of its population but account for a quarter of the nation’s recorded crimes.

Meanwhile, war-torn Kosovo’s 150,000 Roma were forced to flee last summer to refuges in Macedonia after being accused of collaborating with the Serb army. In October, Gypsies petitioned Poland’s civil rights ombudsman, claiming they felt unsafe.

In neighboring Slovakia, Roma comprise a fifth of inhabitants in some eastern districts. With a birthrate four times the Slovak average, they’re set to become the country’s majority by 2060.

Roma leaders have taken steps to highlight the worsening conditions. An International Romany Union has promoted greater representation in national parliaments, while a Roma Rights Center in Budapest has publicized anti-Gypsy incidents.

Yet efforts like these are hampered by indifference.

The 54-state Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which runs a special Roma program, warned in 1998 of plans to resettle Gypsies in fenced-in shelters outside the western Czech city of Plzen, and to house them in metal containers at Szekesfehervar in Hungary.

While some Roma are fully integrated, living and working like their non-Roma neighbors, many survive in extreme poverty in isolated communities. A third group exists in between, on the margins of assimilation. It’s people like this that Eastern Europe’s Catholic church has tried hardest to reach.

In the Czech Republic, a bishops’ conference commission issued a statement at Roma request this October, endorsing Fr. Jancik’s view that the Usti conflict had social causes.

It was only the latest of several Catholic interventions. In a 1998 pastoral, the Czech bishops urged citizens to “show solidarity” with Gypsies, adding that many were “losing hope” of ever being “treated with dignity.”

Bishops’ conference spokesman Fr. Daniel Herman says the 1998 letter triggered a series of local parish initiatives. “We’d like more Gypsy priests -- but most have no secondary schooling and can’t obtain higher education,” Herman told NCR. “So for now, we need to motivate ordinary clergy to bring Gypsies into normal parish life.”

The Polish church has helped integrate the country’s 30,000 Roma, organizing special pilgrimages to the shrines of Jasna Gora and Limanowa. Croatia’s Catholic bishops’ conference also runs Gypsy projects, including a summer school.

Even in the church, however, there are problems.

In Hungary, a Children’s Bible was printed in 1996 in Lovari, the language spoken by most East European Roma. But a separate New Testament for adults still awaits Vatican authorization nine years after being presented to the pope.

“In villages with large Gypsy populations, attempts have been made to use Gypsy languages in the liturgy,” explained Miklos Tomka, a Hungarian sociologist.

“But there are great problems in conveying the correct image of Jesus, as well as with simple words such as Dervla, which means both God and Devil in Lovari.”

Despite the obstacles, efforts continue.

In Slovakia, where a Roma Bible and catechism were printed last year, a special church and school are planned at Jarovnice. One of Slovakia’s five Gypsy priests has inaugurated the first Catholic parish for Roma at Brezno, where Gypsies make up half the population.

Meanwhile, the church is working on plans for the world’s first Roma diocese.

“Its task will be to supervise the systematic catechization of Gypsies and end their marginalization within the church,” said Fr. Josef Hrtus, an assistant to Slovakia’s bishops’ conference chairman, Rudolf Balaz.

Sr. Atanazja Holubova, one of Slovakia’s six Roma nuns, thinks the church can make a key contribution in raising the Gypsies’ level of life. At the Roma slum where Holubova works outside Bardejov, many of the 900 inhabitants have no electricity. But 60 percent attend Mass in the nearby church-run culture center, which contains the world’s first chapel to Spanish Gypsy martyr Blessed Ceferino Jimenez Malla (1861-1936).

Ironically, though half a million Roma were killed by the Nazis during World War II, the Porajmos, or Gypsy Holocaust, was commemorated for the first time only in 1993, largely thanks to efforts by the pope and church leaders in Eastern Europe.

In a move meant to ease tensions, the Czech government has agreed to help Maticna Street’s few Czech families move out by buying up their houses.

“The mayor built [the wall] illegally so the whites wouldn’t have to look at us. But we have to coexist, and I’m sure the government won’t allow such things,” said Bozena Goralova, a Roma council member.

Such expectations of harmony aren’t shared by taxi drivers in Usti’s town center.

“Those Gypsies can go to hell the short way,” the drivers’ leader said angrily. “They should be sent to Germany and Sweden. The trouble is they’re not wanted there either.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000