Pope Francis has apologised to the Roma people on behalf of the Catholic Church during his visit to Romania.
At a meeting with Roma people on the last day of his visit to the country, the pontiff asked forgiveness for “all those times in history when we have discriminated, mistreated or looked askance at you”.
Roma people have faced persecution in Europe for centuries.
Hundreds of thousands are thought to have been killed during the Holocaust.
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Nowadays Roma live mainly in southern and central Europe, and make up about 10% of Romania’s total population. They complain they struggle to get work because of discrimination, and many live in poverty.
“I ask forgiveness – in the name of the Church and of the Lord – and I ask forgiveness of you,” Pope Francis said in the central town of Blaj.
“Indifference breeds prejudices and fosters anger and resentment,” the pontiff said. “How many times do we judge rashly, with words that sting, with attitudes that sow hatred and division!”
“This is a historic moment for me and my people,” Damian Draghici, a Roma MEP for Romania, told the BBC. “I hope this message will change people’s attitude and stereotypes against our people.”
Who are the Roma?
- An ethnic group thought to have come to Europe from northern India about 1,500 years ago
- Most live in southern and central Europe, although some have also emigrated to the US and Brazil – the EU lists them as the largest ethnic minority in Europe
- Roma were enslaved in Romania into the 19th century
- Nazi Germany targeted Roma people during the Holocaust, and historians estimate hundreds of thousands were murdered
- Roma complain of housing and employment discrimination throughout Europe
The meeting with the Roma came after a ceremony in Blaj at which Pope Francis beatified seven bishops who were jailed and tortured during Communist rule in Romania.
Authorities detained the men in 1948 for treason after they refused to convert to Orthodox Christianity.
All seven died in confinement and were buried in secret.
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“With great courage and interior fortitude, they accepted harsh imprisonment and every kind of mistreatment, in order not to deny their fidelity to their beloved Church,” Pope Francis told tens of thousands of worshippers at the open-air Mass on Sunday.
Beatification – a papal “blessing” on a dead person” – is a crucial step on the way to sainthood.
The seven bishops were part of the Eastern Catholic church – a religious group that practises Orthodox Christian rituals but recognise the Pope’s authority.
When a Communist regime took power in Romania following the end of World War II, the authorities outlawed Eastern Catholicism and demanded worshippers convert to Orthodoxy.
According to 2011 census data, only about 150,000 Eastern Catholics remain in Romania – roughly one 10th of the number that followed the church in 1948.
Historians believe thousands of Romanians were executed by Communist authorities, with many more imprisoned or tortured for opposing the regime.
The totalitarian government collapsed in December 1989. President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day.