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Pope calls for ‘integration’ in visit to impoverished Slovak Roma

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Pope Francis speaks from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking St. Peter’s square in the Vatican during the weekly Angelus prayer on June 06, 2021. (Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP)

Pope Francis on Tuesday visited a dilapidated housing estate inhabited by ethnic Roma in eastern Slovakia, calling for “integration” for the marginalised community.

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The 84-year-old Argentine pontiff, who is on his first foreign trip since a colon operation in July, often calls for assistance to the world’s poorest communities.

After hearing from Roma at the Lunik IX estate in Kosice, the pope told members of the community that “all too often you have been the object of prejudice and harsh judgements”.

“Marginalising others accomplishes nothing. Segregating ourselves and other people eventually leads to anger. The path to peaceful coexistence is integration,” he said from a podium, as residents watched from apartment blocks.

“Francis, Welcome Among Us,” read a sign hanging from one window.

In Lunik IX, nearly 4,500 residents are squeezed into a space meant to accommodate half that number.

Many blocks have no electricity, heat, gas or running water as utilities were cut because of unpaid bills.

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“It is great that the Holy Father is willing to come to a place where no one wants to go,” Peter Besenyei, leader of the local Salesian community at Lunik IX, said ahead of the visit.

“It is difficult to find teachers at Lunik IX, it is difficult to find priests who would be willing to work there, and the pope comes there in this difficult environment,” Besenyei told AFP.

Holocaust ‘shame’
In the weeks before the visit, city authorities got busy fixing a road and cleaning up the area, but prejudices against its residents run deep.

During his visit, the pope met a couple, Nikola and Rene Harakaly, aged 28 and 29, who grew up in Lunik IX but said they moved away to give their children “a happier and more peaceful life full of dignity”.

“You have arrived at a time when everyone is in a difficult situation because of the pandemic,” 61-year-old Jan Hero, an engineer and another member of the Roma community, told the pope.

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Nearly 20 percent of Slovakia’s estimated 400,000 Roma live in abject poverty, in more than 600 shanty towns mostly in the south and east of this eurozone country of 5.4 million people.

Eastern Slovakia has one of the lowest GDP per capita levels in Europe.

The Roma, concentrated in Central and Eastern Europe, have faced discrimination for centuries — historians estimate that half a million Roma were killed by the Nazis, wiping out about a quarter of their population.

During the four-day visit to Slovakia the pope has expressed his “shame” over the Holocaust in a meeting with Slovak Jews and called for greater “solidarity” as Europe’s economy begins to recover from the pandemic.

The leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics will also meet young people in a stadium in Kosice later on Tuesday before celebrating an open-air Mass in the town of Sastin on Wednesday ahead of his return trip to Rome.

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