UPDATE 8/27/2010: More members of the Catholic hierarchy have weighed in on the question of the deportation of the Roma from France. Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, told French news agency I.Media that in deploring the deportations, the Church was not getting into politics. "When one defends human rights, when one talks about the respect for the dignity of persons, in particular women and children, one is not getting into politics but into pastoral care." Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris, told Europe-1 radio that he planned to meet with France's interior minister to tell him what Roman Catholics think, "and to remind him that there are certain lines that must not be crossed."
As France continues its controversial campaign to repatriate foreign-born Gypsies, Pope Benedict XVI called for greater acceptance of cultural differences and urged parents to teach their children tolerance. Speaking in French to pilgrims gathered in the courtyard of the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo Aug. 22, the pope said the day's Scriptures were "an invitation to learn how to accept legitimate differences among human beings, just like Jesus came to unite men and women from every nation and every language." After praying the Angelus, he urged families to teach tolerance. "Dear parents, may you be able to educate your children about universal fraternity," he said in French.
The approximately 8,000 Catholic Gypsies gathered at Lourdes for their 34th annual pilgrimage (photo), welcomed this statement of support from the Pope. While exact numbers are not available, it is estimated that the vast majority of French Gypsies are Catholic. Most Gypsies in Romania, the country to which the French government is repatriating them, are orthodox, though evangelical protestant denominations are making significant inroads into the Gypsy communities in both countries.
The French government's policy of destroying Gypsy settlements and deporting their residents has come under strong criticism from the nation's Catholic clergy and hierarchy. Msgr. Christophe Dufour, archbishop of Aix and Arles witnessed one of the raids personally and issued the following statement:
"Wishing to meet the poorest people, as I always do when visiting communities in my diocese, I was speaking with some Roma families, when a large group of police arrived. Some of the caravans were destroyed. I'm not blaming the police who were obeying orders. But I am demanding respect for people and their dignity, within the framework of French law. If crimes have been committed, they should be punished. However security speeches that might lead one to believe that there are inferior people are not acceptable. These people, who are European citizens, have lived peacefully here for the most part, some for many years. With Secours Catholique, we have organized a program of literacy and integration. In the spirit of peace, I am ready to meet with authorities and elected officials to come up with solutions, possibly arbitration."
Msgr. Raymond Centène, bishop of Vannes, and Msgr Claude Schockert, bishop of Belfort-Montbéliard, who are responsible for ministry to migrants and traveling folk for the French Bishops' Conference also deplored the hasty generalizations and stigmatizing to which the Gypsies have been subjected.
In perhaps the most dramatic rejection of the government's policy from a French clergyman, Fr. Arthur Hervet (photo above, with a Roma family), an Assumptionist priest who has been working with the Roma for the last four years in Lille, returned the National Order of Merit medal he had been awarded by Minister of the Interior Brice Hortefeux some four years earlier. Fr. Hervet told La Croix that "the return of my Order of Merit medal is a gesture of despair in the face of an avalanche of unsustainable decisions since the Roma are officially regarded as guilty and troublemakers by the President of the Republic."
As a result of this and other policies, President Sarkozy's approval rating among Catholic voters in his country has declined precipitously from 61% in August 2009 to 47% in July 2010. And the headline of an editorial in yesterday's Le Monde summed up the situation well: "Nicolas Sarkozy et les catholiques: le divorce?"