Slovak Roma hope pope's visit will challenge stereotypes

Kosice (Slovakia) (AFP) –


Crunching on sunflower seeds, a group of Roma children watch excitedly as builders work on the final preparations for a visit by Pope Francis to one of Europe's poorest regions in Slovakia.

The workers are erecting a power line in Lunik IX, a dilapidated housing estate in the eastern city of Kosice where people from the Roma minority have lived in abject poverty and faced stigma for decades.

"In Kosice, when an employer found out that I am Roma and live at Lunik IX, they refused to give me the job we agreed on over the phone," Maria Horvathova, 45, a mother of 12, told AFP.

"There is racism everywhere and people do not want to give us a chance," she said.

Poverty and overcrowding are chronic issues at Lunik IX, where 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 due to unpaid bills.

- 'Spiritual support' -

The Roma have big communities in Central and Eastern Europe and are considered the largest ethnic minority in Europe as a whole.

They 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.

Horvathova has since found work at the local Salesian church that is helping to organise the papal visit and is now one of the few local inhabitants to have a job.

"People say that Lunik IX is the poorest and dirtiest place of all. I hope that the pope does not think so and that he will give us some spiritual support," she said, while cooking eggs on a gas canister-powered stove.

Maria Horvathova, 45, is one of the few locals to have a job
Maria Horvathova, 45, is one of the few locals to have a job VLADIMIR SIMICEK AFP

Pope Francis will visit Hungary and Slovakia next week and the trip to Lunik IX on September 14 will be a key moment, reflecting his message of closeness to impoverished communities.

The eastern part of Slovakia, an EU member state of 5.4 million people, ranks among one of the places in Europe with the lowest GDP per capita, along with parts of Bulgaria and Romania.

Despite the difficulties, Marcel Sana, the mayor of Lunik IX, is hoping to create a good first impression for the pope and is busy sprucing up the area ahead of the visit.

"We are fixing the road leading to the district, getting rid of potholes, renovating facades, revitalising the greenery," he said.

- 'Not some kind of trash' -

When the pope visits, a 35-member children's choir will sing for him in Romani.

"I hope his visit will make people understand that we are not some kind of trash and that also decent and fine people live here," said 19-year-old Monika Gulasova, one of the performers.

Gulasova is a member of the local Salesian community led by Peter Besenyei, who is responsible for the pastoral care of the Roma in the Kosice Archdiocese.

During his visit, Pope Francis will say some words in Romani
During his visit, Pope Francis will say some words in Romani VLADIMIR SIMICEK AFP

"The Roma are believers by their nature," Besenyei told AFP. "They do not have the slightest doubt about the existence of God."

The priest said that during his visit, Pope Francis would say some words in the Romani language and the Our Father prayer would also be recited in Romani.

"He will bring the hope to the Lunik IX Roma that if you want to change your life, you can," he said.