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Papa bull? What the Pope said about Roma

10.11.2015 15:20
--ilustrační foto--
--ilustrační foto--

On Monday, October 26th, Pope Francis spoke to an audience of 7,000 members of the Roma and Sinti communities on the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul IV's meeting with Roma people in an informal settlement near Rome. While many were happy to receive his blessing, others were less impressed with what he had to say. In this guest blog, William Bila takes issue with the Pontiff’s message.

What was the purpose of the Pope’s meeting? Was it to draw attention to social injustice, or to give a sign of hope? If so, then he failed miserably.

Inviting guests to offer them unsolicited advice in the form of chastisement fails on all counts to give any hope of things getting better. On the contrary, it gives the majority of European society another reason to wag its collective finger at the Roma. The Pope said, “Your children have the right to go to school, do not stop them from doing so!” Well, he should be addressing this message to the highest level of officials in France, whose eviction policies upset the stability of family life and prevent children from going to school, not to mention having cost the country over €50 million this year alone. Why did he not chastise the Slovak and Czech authorities, against whom the European Commission has initiated infringement proceedings for allowing segregated schooling to continue in defiance of the European Court of Human Rights ruling that such systems are illegal and must be dismantled? And the members of his church who are citizens of these countries and allow this racialization of politics to continue, when will he address them?

Instead, he blames the victims. How is this sending a signal of hope? In the context of an invitation to the Vatican, did he tell these parents to stand up and fight for their rights as equal European citizens? That would be encouragement to do the right thing.

Instead, his intention to encourage better behaviour mentioned peaceful co-habitation, not having children die in fires (in shantytowns), and human trafficking. Is he implying that Roma are willfully living in substandard conditions in socially excluded areas? Who is really in control of the situation here? Is it really these people, who came to Rome and listened to this message of blame, who should change their behaviour?

Why did the Pope not just use common sense when addressing his audience. Let’s take the issue of shantytowns. Unfortunately, applying common sense is something many local and national authorities across Europe are also unable to do. The French government’s eviction policy targeting Roma is a money pit, which eternally creates the problem it is trying to solve: illegal shanty towns are demolished one day, only to spring up soon after. People need a roof over their heads before their kids can go to school, and the kids do manage to go to school when their shantytowns are left alone, e.g. in La Courneuve for the past 7 years until this September. Instead of spending €50m a year chasing people and destroying any chance for them to find stability, a one-time spend of €50m toward housing could probably pay to house four thousand families, or close to 15,000 people per year. Investing towards a long-term housing solution for the population currently living in shantytowns across France, regardless of whether they are of Romani origin, would make far more sense. The Pope should also remember that the people in these shantytowns are not exclusively Roma, and they do not choose to live there for lifestyle reasons. It is poverty.

Unfortunately, Sweden appears to consider the French model a success. It has recently started to follow suit by chasing the Roma from Malmö using the excuse of public hygiene and health, without offering an alternative place to live. Voters do not object, though perhaps they are not being informed of the cost both in terms of human lives and how their tax money is being spent. Migrant Roma do not vote locally, though within the EU they have the right to do so. Why doesn’t the Pope encourage them to do so? Why doesn’t he condemn the local communities who allow such evictions to take place and the national governments that do nothing to protect the human rights of European citizens? Yet the Pope went out of his way to invite Roma from Sweden to participate in his charade in Rome.

I did not hear any message of hope or inspiration. I did not hear a universal condemnation of how poverty is being addressed, regardless of the national origin of the poor. Nor did I hear a universal rejection of the racialized treatment of Romani peoples. Anti-gypsyism is at the root of all these problems.

I was disappointed by this poorly managed sham of a publicity event. The Vatican need not have waited 50 years to mark the anniversary of Pope Paul VI reaching out to Roma populations. Commemorations of this historic meeting could have started much sooner, and could have become an annual event to remind the European faithful that Roma are full and equal members of the flock, whose contribution to Christianity should be celebrated.

After this meeting, there is one thing that does not disappoint me – that I left the church years ago. Too bad – I would have been much happier to discover I was wrong.

William Bila is a member of the board of the French NGO La Voix des Rroms responsible for international communication, a member of the board of Roma Education Support Trust in the UK, and serves on the board of the Roma Education Fund. He has over twenty years of experience in consulting, corporate strategy, human resources and program management with the Big 4 and Fortune 100 financial services companies. He graduated with a BS in Finance and International Business from the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University and an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. He is also an elected member of the board of the global University of Chicago LGBT alumni association, and an elected member of the board of the Chicago Booth School of Business alumni association of France.

William Bila
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