KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Pope Francis is paying a visit next week to a neighborhood in Slovakia most Slovaks would not even think about going, which until recently even the police would avoid after dark.
Francis will make the visit to the Roma community in the Lunik IX quarter of Slovakia’s second largest city of Kosice one of the highlights of his pilgrimage to “the heart of Europe.”
Francis will be the first pontiff to meet the most socially excluded minority group in Slovakia. A fitting place to go for the “pope of the peripheries,” Lunik XI is the biggest of about 600 shabby, segregated settlements where the poorest 20% of the country’s 400,000 Roma live.
Most lack basics such as running water or sewage systems, gas or electricity.
“It’s a huge honor for us,” said Lunik IX mayor Marcel Sana, who has been a local resident since he was 2. “Even if he says just a few words, his presence will be a big boost for all those living here, the socially disadvantaged and poor people who need such support.”
For Peter Zatkulak, one of four priests who belong to the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic congregation that moved to Lunik IX in 2008, the pope’s arrival is a chance to restart relations between the Roma and the rest of the population.
Roma have long suffered racism and discrimination in Slovakia and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, and continue to face huge hurdles in employment and education.
“The Roma have been segregated from the majority many times in the past and we didn’t want to see it,” Zatkulak said. “But we needed to integrate them and that’s what’s happening now. Through a prayer, we’d like to seek reconciliation between the Slovaks and the Roma, and also the Church, because we have harmed each other and that has to end. It’s time to say sorry and start all over again.”
He said Francis is key in the process.
“We, the people from Kosice, need 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’s turning our attention to it,” he said. “Let’s be ashamed about our past wrongdoings but let’s try to fix them.”
Andrea Buckova, the Slovak government envoy for Roma issues, said she hoped Francis’ trip will give the area a boost “for the following days and months, and not just a one-time step.”
The news about the pope’s visit has quickly spread to every corner of Lunik IX, raising expectations of its estimated 6,000 inhabitants.
“I’ve heard about him, that he tends to visit the poorest, which might be the reason why he decided to come because this is the poorest neighborhood in Slovakia,” Monika Gulasova said. The 19-year-high school student leads a choir at Sunday Masses at a church established by the Salesians.
“It means for me he will bring a new light and hope to our neighborhood,” she said.
She and several members of her choir, whose singing to the beat of drums creates an unusual sound for a Mass in this Roman Catholic stronghold, will be among those chosen to sing for Francis.
“It’s wonderful he’s coming. It’s (a gift) from the Lord, it comes from the Lord that he’ll be at Lunik IX,” said Anna Turtakova, 67.
Sana, the first local Roma mayor with a university degree, took charge in 2014. That sparked a host of improvements in the communist-era concrete apartment blocks. Gone are the notorious heaps of garbage, and uninhabitable buildings have been demolished. Streetlights are in place again while dozens of surveillance cameras help ensure safety and order. The local school is well-regarded, and playgrounds have opened for local children.
But from the stage to be built for Francis in front of the Salesians’ center, it will be obvious that despite the mayor’s effort and recent improvements poverty still rules here.
On the edge of Lunik IX, the most impoverished occupy a slum consisting of improvised shacks spread among trees and bushes.
Jan Horvath, who lives there with his wife and four children, was planning to go to see the Pope with his family but didn’t expect much.
“We’ll see what it brings to us but nobody is going to help us,” the 41-year-old said. “We have to rely on ourselves.”
With the warm summer days coming to an end soon, he is worried about keeping warm in the freezing winter months.
One of his neighbours, Dyoniz Horvath, 56, was more positive about the papal trip.
“Hopefully, at least something will change for us. He’s after all the second hand of the Lord, or of the Jesus Christ. Who else should we trust than him?”
Francis arrives in Slovakia after a brief stay in Hungary on Sunday. While in the country until Wednesday, he will also visit the capital, Bratislava, as well as Presov and Sastin.
The last papal visit to Slovakia was made in 2003 by Pope John Paul II.