Pope Francis has apologised to the Roma ethnic minority for discrimination against them in Europe and paid homage to Romanian Catholics persecuted during communist rule as he wrapped up his third and final day in Romania.
Francis reached out to the minorities of Transylvania during a deeply symbolic visit to Romania about 20 years after St John Paul II made the first-ever papal trip to the majority Orthodox country.
In his final stop on Sunday before heading back to the Vatican, Francis visited a community of Roma, also known as Gypsies, in a newly built Catholic church that was so small organisers asked the clergy to leave to make more room for Gypsy families to get in.
There, Francis apologised for the “many experiences of discrimination, segregation and mistreatment experienced by your communities”, a reference to the second-class status of the Roma minority in Romania and throughout Europe, where Roma are more likely to be poor, uneducated and at risk of harassment, according to European Union studies.
Francis recently met with members of Roma communities in the diaspora at the Vatican and knows well the hardships they face.
“History tells us that Christians too, including Catholics, are not strangers to such evil,” Francis said, in an apparent reference to World War II-era deportation of Roma along with Romanian Jews that is commemorated by a Holocaust memorial in Bucharest.
“I would like to ask your forgiveness for this,” Francis said.
“I ask forgiveness – in the name of the Church and of the Lord – and I ask forgiveness of you. For all those times in history when we have discriminated, mistreated or looked askance at you … and were unable to acknowledge you, to value you and to defend you in your uniqueness.”
Francis has made it a point to use his trips and meetings with foreign leaders to ask forgiveness for past injustices, just as John Paul did.
He apologised to indigenous peoples for the colonial-era conquest of the Americas while in Bolivia and during a Vatican meeting with the president of Rwanda, apologised for the failures of Catholics in the Rwandan genocide.