THE Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has called for action to tackle the "commonplace" persecution faced by members of the Roma community in Britain.
Speaking in a House of Lords debate, he said that concerns about the problems faced by the Roma in Romania, particularly those facing forced eviction in the country's second city, Cluj-Napoca, should not distract people from the difficulties the community faces in Britain.
"The situation in Romania is worrying, but similar situations can be found in many other countries, and they are equally worrying," Dr Smith said. "The danger is that we spend quite a lot of time thinking about the problems elsewhere rather than focusing on some of the very evident problems that we have here.
"Britain is rightly proud of its long and honourable tradition of welcoming immigrants and fighting discrimination. If International Roma Day is to have any real significance, there needs to be some action behind it."
The Revd Martin Burrell is one of only two chaplains to the Roma and traveller communities in the Church of England. He leads a Roma congregation in the centre of Luton, besides being the Vicar of Bushmead.
The persecution of the Roma "goes backas long as people can remember", he said. "This is a historic community, believed to have come out of northern India at least 1000 years ago, and settled across Europe in different places over many different generations.
"There have always been waves of persecution. There has always been marginalisation. The Roma community have always struggled to be accepted, and always struggled to integrate into the wider community.
"There have been times when it has been not so bad, and times when it has been incredibly difficult. Of course the Holocaust is an extreme example, and half a million Roma people - so it is believed - died at the hands of the Nazis (Comment, 24 January).
"What we are seeing now in the UK, andin other European states where the Eastern European Roma have migrated into our countries . . . is quite a lot of fear: how big a wave is this going to be? How many are going to come? How are they going to integrate? How are the services going to cope?"
Mr Burrell said that he saw "more open persecution" in his previous parish of Cranbrook than in Luton; and put this down tothe "very conservative, white Anglo-Saxon" make-up of Cranbrook, whereas "here in Luton, there are so many different minority ethnic groups . . . there is such a super-diversity of cultures that the Roma do rather well in being part of that fabric. Although they do stand out, it is only another dimension of diversity in a hugely diverse town."
He estimates that the Roma make up about 500 of Luton's 200,000-strong population; and that between 60 to 100 will attend the weekly services of the Roma congregation.
The congregation is described as a "Fresh Expression within the Anglican Church", and provides separate programmes for toddlers, children, and adults. Services reflect the Pentecostal tradition associated with the Roma, and are conducted in Romany and Romanian languages by Mr Burrell, supported by some of the men from the congregation.
"This type of cross-cultural mission is a huge opportunity for the Church of England," Mr Burrell said. "We are seeing such huge demographic changes in recent generations, in particular in the bigger towns and cities of the land.
"In a place like Luton, there have been such big demographic changes that, to be honest, the survival of the Church of England will depend on our ability to reachout to these communities, which are growing fast. And to do this we need to be prepared to step outside of our comfort zones.
"We need to get beyond thinking of mission as being more to people like ourselves. There is nothing wrong with thatat all, and it has to continue. But there are thousands of people in the country whowill not be touched by our standard methods of evangelism and mission, and we have to really be incarnational and go to where the people are, and live out our lives alongside them to be able to reach them."
Roma in your parish? The Revd Martin Burrell is happy to hear from other clergy in the UK who have Roma communities in their parishes. To contact him for information, email email@example.com.