KOSICE, Slovakia (dpa) – Pope Francis is visiting a neighborhood in Slovakia next week that most Slovaks would not even think of, which until recently even the police would avoid after dark.
Francis will make the visit to the Roma community in the Lunik IX district of the second largest Slovak city, Kosice, one of the highlights of his pilgrimage to the “heart of Europe”.
Francis will be the first Pope to meet the most socially excluded minority group in Slovakia. Lunik XI is a suitable contact point for the “Pope of the Periphery” and the largest of around 600 run-down, isolated settlements in which the poorest 20% of the country’s 400,000 Roma live.
Most of them lack the basics like running water or sewage, gas or electricity.
“It’s a great honor for us,” said Lunik IX. Mayor Marcel Sana, who, since his 2nd, welcomed the socially disadvantaged and poor people who need such support. “
For Peter Zatkulak, one of four Salesian priests from Don Bosco, a Catholic community that moved to Lunik IX in 2008, the Pope’s arrival is an opportunity to reestablish relations between the Roma and the rest of the population.
Roma have long suffered from racism and discrimination in Slovakia and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe and continue to face major hurdles to employment and education.
“The Roma have been separated from the majority many times in the past and we didn’t want to see that,” said Zatkulak. “But we had to integrate them and that is happening now. We would like to seek reconciliation between Slovaks and Roma and also the Church through a prayer, because we have harmed each other and that must come to an end. It’s time to apologize and start all over again. “
He said Francis was key to this process.
“We, the people of Kosice, have to remind the world that every big city has a dark side that we don’t want to see. And Francis’ greatness is that he draws our attention to it, ”he said. “Let us be ashamed of our past wrongdoings, but let’s try to fix them.”
Andrea Buckova, the Slovak government’s envoy on Roma issues, said she hoped that Francis’ trip would give the region “a boost for the days and months to come, not just a one-off move”.
News of the Pope’s visit quickly spread to every corner of Lunik IX, raising the expectations of the estimated 6,000 residents.
“I’ve heard from him that he tends to visit the poorest. This could be the reason why he decided to come here because this is the poorest neighborhood in Slovakia, ”said Monika Gulasova. The 19-year-old high school student leads a choir at Sunday masses in a church founded by the Salesians.
“To me it means that he brings a new light and new hope to our neighborhood,” she said.
She and several members of her choir, whose singing to the beat of the drums creates an unusual sound for a mass in this Roman Catholic stronghold, will be among the chosen ones to sing for Francis.
“It is wonderful that he is coming. It is (a gift) from the Lord, it comes from the Lord that he will be with Lunik IX, “said Anna Turtakova, 67.
In 2014, Sana, the first local Roma mayor with a university degree, took over the helm. This led to a number of improvements in communist-era concrete apartment buildings. Gone are the notorious piles of rubbish and uninhabitable buildings have been demolished. Street lights have been put up again, dozens of surveillance cameras ensure security and order. The local school is highly regarded and playgrounds have been opened for local children.
But from the stage to be built for Francis in front of the Salesian Center, it becomes clear that, despite the mayor’s efforts and recent improvements, there is still poverty here.
On the outskirts of Lunik IX, the poorest occupy a slum made up of improvised huts scattered between trees and bushes.
Jan Horvath, who lives there with his wife and four children, wanted to go to the Pope with his family, but did not expect much.
“We’ll see what that brings us, but no one will help us,” said the 41-year-old. “We have to rely on ourselves”
With the warm summer days coming to an end, he worries about keeping warm in the freezing winter months.
One of his neighbors, Dyoniz Horvath, 56, is more positive about the papal trip.
“Hopefully something will change for us at least. After all, he is the second hand of the Lord or Jesus Christ. Who else should we trust but him? “
Francis arrives in Slovakia on Sunday after a short stay in Hungary. During his stay in the country until Wednesday, he will also visit the capital Bratislava, as well as Presov and Sastin.
The last Pope visit to Slovakia was in 2003 by Pope John Paul II.
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