Francis visits Roma: The Pope visits the ghetto

SIt is very clear that Pope Francis spoke out against exclusion and discrimination during his visit to Slovakia. “Too often you are the subject of preconceived notions and merciless judgments, discriminatory stereotypes, defamatory words and gestures,” said the head of the church on Tuesday afternoon to the members of the Roma minority whom he had visited in the prefabricated housing estate Luník IX in Košice, eastern Slovakia. At the same time, the Holy Father also warned the residents. Integration alone leads to peaceful coexistence between the majority population and the minority, he said.

Matthias Rüb

Political correspondent for Italy, the Vatican, Albania and Malta based in Rome.

The Luník IX district, which the Pope visited on Tuesday afternoon, does not have a good reputation. Not in Košice, the second largest city in Slovakia with around 240,000 inhabitants, not in the entire republic, not in Europe. Because it is one of the largest Roma settlements on the continent. More than 6000 Roma live in this ghetto, nobody knows for sure. Ninety percent of them have no permanent job, most of them live on meager welfare and child benefit. To describe the living conditions here as precarious would be a euphemism. In Luník IX there is sheer misery. Not in all of the prefabricated apartment blocks from the socialist era, but in most of them

Failed social experiment from communist times

In the days leading up to the Pope’s visit on Tuesday afternoon, all kinds of preparations had been made. The grass had been mowed, rubbish picked up and rubbish collected, streets and sidewalks swept. What could not be eliminated in the short term, however, was the smell of feces that penetrated from many house entrances on the day of the Pope’s visit and lay over the rivulet along the four-lane road. The Luník IX district arose at the end of the 1960s from the minds of urban planners and “social engineers” in what was then socialist Czechoslovakia. The idea was that the semi-settled Roma were to be relocated from their barracks at the gates of the heavy industry to modern prefabricated flats on the outskirts of the city in order to integrate into the majority society there.

Huge interest: Roma are waiting for Pope Francis to arrive in the Luník IX settlement in Košice.

Huge interest: Roma are waiting for Pope Francis to arrive in the Luník IX settlement in Košice.

Image: EPA

The apartments in the newly built district, named after the Soviet Luník lunar probes from the 1950s, were initially only assigned to a good third of Roma families. The rest went to members of the army and police as well as steel workers. But the social experiment to contain the Roma, whose way of life was routinely associated with poverty and unrest, by means of security forces and their families in the prefabricated building was doomed to failure from the start. Even in the late days of socialism, families of soldiers, police officers and workers moved away, and more and more Romas moved in.

After the fall of communism in 1989, the ghettoization of the model district originally planned for 2,000 inhabitants continued unchecked. The population swelled quickly to three times the calculated capacity. Because the poorest of the poor among the Roma did not pay the electricity, gas and heating bills for their apartments, the public utilities shut down entire blocks.

Children had shouted “pápež” days before the visit

The inner segregation of Luník IX is easy to see. In the “better” apartment blocks near the street, a satellite dish is installed on almost every balcony, sometimes there is a freezer next to it, and mid-range cars are parked in the parking lots. In the blocks without electricity and sometimes also without water supply, people in the adjacent forest collect twigs and branches for the upcoming heating season.

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