By Ujunwa Ochulo
Pope Francis called Monday for a fresh start for Roma and Sinti communities, telling traveller families from around the world they could break free of prejudice by not falling into crime.
“I want your people to have a fresh start, a renewed narrative,” the pontiff told some 5,000 Roma and Sinti people attending an audience at the Vatican, after making his way on foot through cheering crowds.
But, Francis warned, it is important “not to give the press and public opinion any occasion to speak badly of you”.
“You can do it if you are above all good Christians, avoiding everything unworthy of the title: lies, scams, tricks, fights”.
“The time has come to eradicate centuries-old prejudices, preconceptions and mutual mistrust that are often at the root of discrimination, racism and xenophobia,” he said to groups largely from Spain, France and Romania.
Flag-waving and selfie-taking youngsters sang along with traditional Roma music played for the 78-year-old pontiff.
Noting the large number of children at the audience — and babies held up for the pope to kiss as he passed — Francis urged parents to allow their offspring access to education and a better start in life.
“Your children have a right to go to school, do not prevent them,” he said, repeating the phrase for emphasis.
“Access to education allows your young to become active citizens, to participate in the political, social and economic life of your respective countries,” he added.
– ‘Goosebumps’ –
Blind teenager Ursula, born and raised in a Roma camp in the Italian capital, quivered with excitement as she described her encounter with Francis, who she said stroked her face as he blessed her.
Surrounded by a gaggle of friends from the camp, she said the Argentine pontiff’s words were “really moving for all of us”, adding that she had been left with “goosebumps”.
She was one of many from the squalid and overcrowded camps around Rome that local authorities use to house a mix of Italian-born Roma, recent migrants from eastern Europe and Sinti, a traditionally itinerant ethnic group that has been present in Italy for centuries.
Maria, a 29-year-old mother of four from Serbia who moved to the Italian capital when she was six, described life growing up in such a camp, “where life is difficult and we have to grow up before our time”.
The pro-Roma group Associazione 21 Luglio said it hoped the audience with the pope would “be the necessary stimulus to get Rome’s authorities to stop once and for all with their policy of exclusion and discrimination against Roma”.
Campaigners say forced evictions of ethnic Roma from camps around Rome have more than tripled since March when Francis announced a Jubilee Year of Mercy, sending the city on a clean-up spree.
Wednesday’s audience marked the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s visit to Roma camps in the nearby town of Pomezia in 1965, when he told the travellers “you are not at the margins of the Church, but at its centre”.