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Empower European Romas, says church network

01 September 2023


A Roma woman on the streets of Rome in January

A Roma woman on the streets of Rome in January

EURODIACONIA, the network that represents 52 Churches and Christian NGOs across Europe, has issued new guidelines for fostering participation by Europe’s Roma minority, urging greater trust, co-operation, and appreciation for Gypsy culture.

“Diaconal organisations believe that all people are made in the image of God — that everyone is equipped with unique skills, ideas and competences which should be nourished,” the guidelines state. “Top-down approaches have a limited effect, and projects aimed at Roma inclusion should actively involve Roma at all stages. Only a participatory approach will allow Roma to take co-ownership and be empowered.”

The guidelines, updating a set from 2014, were drafted after a spring meeting of church groups working with Roma communities in Bratislava. They urge a “culturally sensitive approach” adapted to Roma needs, aimed at “long-term sustainability”.

“Diaconal organisations aim at empowering individuals to fulfil their potential — this empowerment is a continuous process rather than a one-off event, and is driven by Christian values and societal needs,” the guidelines say.

“We should empower Roma to be ambassadors for their culture at local, regional and national level, and in a positive engagement with the media. We should also fight anti-gypsyism by raising awareness of Roma traditions, history, culture and language.”

There are between ten and 12 million Roma in Europe, about one third of the world’s total. They are the Continent’s least organised and represented minority, with up to four-fifths living in poverty and 30 per cent lacking running water and basic facilities.

Hundreds of thousands of Roma, who first reached Europe from Punjab in the tenth century, were killed by Nazis during the Holocaust — an outrage not publicly commemorated until the 1990s — and Roma life expectancy currently remains ten years below the European average.

In October 2020, the European Union’s governing commission launched a ten-year plan to improve conditions in all areas for Roma, including halving the gap with the general population in education, employment, health, housing, and income.

An EU report in January acknowledged, however, that not all 27 member states had adopted the required National Roma Strategic Frameworks, and warned that “strong partnerships” were still needed “between all relevant stakeholders”.

A European Roma and Travellers Forum, set up in 2004 by the Council of Europe with elected delegates from 40 countries, continues to report cases of aggression and intimidation; and human-rights organisations have condemned the forced eviction of Roma from unofficial settlements and other forms of discrimination.

In its new guidelines, Eurodiaconia says that Roma should be brought into decision-making about equal access to public services, and be encouraged to gain a “sense of belonging” through engagement with local political, economic, and cultural life.

It suggests that Roma leaders should themselves maintain better contact with “grassroots-level Roma initiatives”; Roma mediators should be appointed, and local officials trained to understand Roma “core values, traditions, culture and language”.

“Diaconal organisations should take an intercultural approach to ensure positive interactions between Roma and non-Roma communities — to promote interaction, embrace diversity, ensure equal opportunities and avoid segregation,” the guidelines say.

“They should approach individuals in a holistic way, which means looking beyond mere material or physical needs and considering spiritual needs.”

Church organisations, both national and international, have long urged protection and integration for Roma, many of whom belong to predominant Christian denominations, since the first Roma Congress, co-funded by the World Council of Churches in April 1971 at Chelsfield, near Orpington, in Kent, set out to defend Roma culture and rights.

In Britain, where an ecumenical Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma was set up in the late 1990s, the Church of England condemned anti-Roma discrimination in a February 2019 General Synod resolution (News, 1 March 2019), and has since appointed at least 12 chaplains to work with Roma communities.

In June, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York met Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) representatives as part of a new initiative to “encourage and signpost churches” welcoming GRT people “into worshipping communities”.

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