Pope calls for 'integration' for poverty-stricken Slovak Roma

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

Pope Francis addresses faithful at the Lokomotiva Stadium in Kosice, Slovakia, on September 14, 2021, during his four-day visit in Slovakia. The Pope is on a four-day visit in Slovakia, where he will meet with Holocaust survivors and members of the Roma community. Handout / AFP / VATICAN MEDIA

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.

"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.

- 'Like a lightning bolt' -

In the weeks before the papal visit, city authorities busied themselves fixing a road and cleaning up the area, but prejudices against the 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".

"Our parents encouraged us to swim against the current," they told the pope.

After hearing the pope, Igor Sivak, a 32-year-old resident said: "He made us feel that we are equal to any other people in the world.

"His presence will certainly make a change. The very fact that he visited Lunik IX was like a lightning bolt that struck us. His words can change the way we live together," he said.

Emil Balogh, an unemployed 51-year-old, said he was more sceptical that the pope's visit would effect change but said the pope "certainly made us feel that he understands the situation".

Rado Chalupka, a maths teacher at Lunik IX, said the pope's words were also aimed at non-Roma.

"We as a majority should do a better job at accepting the Roma and live together in peace," he said.

- 'Shame' over Holocaust -

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 levels of gross domestic product per capita 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 his 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 also met with 25,000 young people in a stadium in Kosice. On Wednesday he will celebrate an open-air Mass in the town of Sastin ahead of his return trip to Rome.