In God’s image…

European Churches demand respect and authentic integration for Roma populations

The largest ethnic minority in Europe, which is also the most vulnerable, is experiencing increasing marginalization. It’s the Roma population, often victim of widespread prejudice, of attacks by politicians who make an instrumental use of them for electoral purposes, and under “close scrutiny” by the media that ride the wave of stereotyping and urban fears. The Roma were the focus of debates by Christian Churches in Athens in the framework of an ecumenical meeting for dialogue and exchange of opinions. The event was organized by the European Churches’ Conference (CEC, the European body that brings together 115 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican Churches) in conjunction with the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE), under the patronage of the Greek government within the provinces of its six-month-presidency of the EU presidency. “The figures available are not accurate – said Msgr. Jànos Székely, auxiliary bishop of Esztergom-Budapest – also because many of them conceal their identity, but figures show the presence of some 12/15 million Roma in Europe. The encounter reposes on the acknowledgement of a situation of degradation marking the living conditions of this minority in Europe. Lack of employment and poor access to schooling are the most severe problems, linked to the Roma’s exclusion and poverty”. Let’s start with the problem of employment. “In certain areas of Europe, the Roma carried out traditional, useful jobs for centuries, with no tensions. Today things have changed: job losses brought to the fore problems linked to crime, use of drugs and forced migration. Thus, while unemployment is a major problem, we believe that the European Union should step up its commitment for targeted financial aid and dedicated job-creating programs, especially in the most vulnerable areas of European societies, notably in East European countries, to improve living conditions in those areas where these populations live and wish to remain”. What’s the second problem? “Lack of schooling/education. Some parents are not convinced of the utility of education for their children. They don’t consider it a value. From this perspective the Church can give a great contribution to create a culture of education and schooling. It is often a question of convincing the families that giving an education to their children could guarantee a future to their communities. Many cases of school dropouts are caused by school failures. That’s why it’s important to support the culture of education also through supplementary tuition”. In reality there is also another problem related to the Roma population, which is widespread prejudice against them. “We spoke about it at length in Athens, and we agreed on the need to make known the history, culture and lifestyle of the Roma. Also at national level it’s important to write down the history of the Roma in the respective countries and include these accounts in the school curricula to boost in-depth knowledge of this population and of the causes of the problems they are called to face today. Policymakers and the media can play an important role to this regard. Politicians sometimes make an instrumental use of the Roma’s problem to gain votes. We believe that these issues should not be exploited, under elections especially. Also the media sometimes transmit a unilateral, stereotyped image, speaking only of crime and never showing the real face of many Roma families. The argument that carries prejudice, sometimes even hatred, is harmful and it should be banned and legally pursued by the media and in political discourse”. What are European Churches asking of the European Union? “In Athens the Churches have signed a final statement listing a set of key themes. The document begins with a Christian belief that every man was created in the image of God and that he has equal dignity regardless of ethnic identity. From this perspective we all are brothers and sisters”. What kind of culture does the presence of the Roma and other minorities require in Europe? “A culture of respect. The integration that is widely spoken of doesn’t mean assimilation. The Roma should not be forced to relinquish the richness of their culture, nor the specific traits pertaining to their lifestyles. Rather, they should safeguard the values that are inscribed within their culture. This implies that European societies should keep their doors open, and minorities should be their actively engaged members, participating as citizens to the life of the Country”.

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