Romania's Catholic Gypsies Still Struggle Against Poverty and Persecution

CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania — In the Somesheni neighborhood in the Transylvanian capital city of Cluj-Napoca, nine Catholic Gypsy families live inside un-insulated metal boxes that act like iceboxes in the winter and ovens in the summer.

Scraps of linoleum and cardboard cover a dirt floor that Eva Elekesh says is “ice” in the winter and becomes “mushy” during the spring thaw.

For warmth the family burns plastic and other flammable materials scavenged from garbage. An iron stove leaks noxious fumes. Without electricity, light is supplied from a wick dipped in animal fats, which leaves its mark on the blackened ceiling and in the deep coughs of the Elekesh children.

Two years ago the nine families lived in the center of the city, where they held jobs and worshipped at the local Catholic parish. After a suspicious fire in the middle of the night robbed them of their homes and possessions, municipal authorities transported them here, alongside the railroad tracks just a couple hundred yards from the city dump.

The circle of corrugated metal homes sits between a group of displaced Gypsies being helped by a Baptist charity organization, which has supplied insulated homes with raised floors. On the other side is a larger community of Pentecostal Gypsies, who worship along with their Western sponsors at a church built inside the commune.

In contrast, the nearby Catholic church no longer offers services because only three elderly Catholics live in the area, said Rose Marie Stolz, director of the local Catholic Charities.


Gypsies (or Roma, as they are more correctly known) are negatively regarded across Europe as beggars, thieves and loveless parents, and are seldom viewed as good Christians.

A century and a half after Gypsy emancipation in Romania, discrimination is still a problem affecting many Roma in their daily lives, in employment, education and worship.

Pope John Paul II has often spoken out against Gypsy persecution.

“It is necessary to overcome ancient prejudice that leads you to suffer forms of discrimination and at times undesirable marginalizing of the Gypsy population,” he said in May 1997 at services honoring Ceferino Jimenez Malla, the first Gypsy elevated to beatification.

Yet few in Romania seem to be listening. Recent polls show that more than 75% of Romanians believe Roma to be criminals, and nearly half support segregation and the right of local authorities to expel Gypsy communes.

Fifteen years after freedom of religion returned to the ex-communist country, 5% of the predominantly Orthodox nation now belongs to Protestant religions. Adventists, Pentecostals and Baptists are today equal in number to Catholics, and many of the Cluj-Napoca Roma have turned from their Catholic faith to the welcoming new Protestant religions.

Manara Gabor, an Adventist convert, claims she now has a closer link to Christ.

“I was baptized Catholic by the priest, but who is the priest?” she said. “He is a man. As an Adventist I am married to Jesus, not with the priest.”

Florin Moisa, an official of the Resource Center for Roma Communities in Cluj-Napoca, said the Roma's relationship with the Catholic Church often depends on the local priest and his sensitivity toward their needs.

“The Roma are more receptive to these new religions,” Moisa said, “and in most cases these groups set up local pastors, someone from inside. They feel it is their church.”

Hard Life

The nine Catholic families who were forced to move to Somesheni have remained true to their faith, but they say they often feel abandoned.

“Caritas helped us immediately after the fire when we lived in the underground shelter, but we never see them anymore,” said Cristian Tsuli, who earns $75 a month as a street cleaner. At the local market, this meager income affords him a daily ration of two loaves of bread, a liter of milk, a stick of butter and a half-pound of meat with which to feed his family of five.

The Tsuli family and others in the compound compensate by rummaging through city garbage bins.

“It is not our responsibility. It is not the Catholic duty but the government who must help them,” Catholic Charities’ Stolz said. “Yes, it is true, it [the Catholic Church] is their Church, but only for the moment. Later they go to the other churches and say we are Baptist or Pentecostal because they have this style.”

Some of the Roma Catholics admit that financial aid could induce them to convert.

“Look, I am not stupid — we have been stuck here for two years. We have children here and if someone offered help I need to accept,” said Elekesh, who complained about being unable to get out the door for work in the morning because of the bodies sleeping on the floor.

The Elekesh family currently numbers 12, packed into an 8-by-12 metal container with two beds. They will be 13 by day's end, when a daughter-in-law and her newborn return from the hospital.

Their neighbor Karoly Czanka, who has worked as a puppet artist at the theater, says he would not convert.

“I am Catholic,” he said. “My mother was Catholic and her mother.”

Czanka's wife “La- La” can't speak or hear, but through signs she manages to explain that the hunger is not so discomforting so long as she has paper and pen to sketch. Her husband scolds her because she burns her drawings for heat.

Father Kadar

At the 700-year-old Calvary Catholic Church on the other side of the city, Father Istvan Kadar considers the Gypsies in his congregation good Catholics who receive the sacraments and attend church like everyone else.

The parish's 10 Gypsy families belonged to the Ligurari tribe (spoon makers) but are a part of the growing number of Roma who no longer refer to themselves as Roma or Gypsy — though everyone else does.

“They are not a problem,” Father Kadar said.

But after a pause and slight grin he added: “Well, we have a little problem with them on the Day of the Dead. Gypsies don't mourn death. They play music at their funerals and during this day while everyone sits quietly and prays, the Gypsies travel all along the road to the church singing and dancing. … But this is their tradition, and we have to respect that.”

Chuck Todaro is based in Romania, where he is researching Roma issues and culture. He can be contacted at [email protected].