Archbishop meets Gypsies seeking refuge in Basilica

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI sent a top Vatican official to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on Easter to convey the pope's concern for a group of Gypsies who had sought refuge in the church after their camp was bulldozed by the city of Rome.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said April 24 that Archbishop Fernando Filoni, who is in charge of the general affairs section of the Vatican Secretariat of State, had gone to "express the closeness of the Holy Father to the group of Roma," which is what the Gypsies prefer to be called.

About 100 Gypsies entered the basilica courtyard and the church April 22, Good Friday, after city officials dismantled their camp on the edge of Rome. The camp was one of four bulldozed during Holy Week, displacing close to 1,000 people, including children, said the Rome diocesan charity, Caritas.

Caritas Rome, working with a private charity, found temporary accommodation for the group in the early evening on Easter, Father Lombardi said. First, however, the Gypsies ate an Easter lunch on the lawn outside the basilica.

According to Italian news reports, there were moments of tension late April 23 when the Vatican police, who patrol the basilica and the property surrounding it, opened the basilica for the faithful to attend the Easter Vigil, but tried to keep a small group of Gypsies out of the church itself, directing them instead to an adjacent room set aside for them.

"The behavior of the Vatican gendarmes was always proper and humane," Father Lombardi said. They worked closely with officials from Caritas and Rome public safety officers, he said.

Father Lombardi said he hoped the temporary accommodation arranged by Caritas would be the "prelude to a stable and adequate" arrangement.

Social service agencies and human rights groups particularly criticized Rome's mayor, Gianni Alemanno, for ordering the Gypsy camps dismantled without providing for the people who would be made homeless by their destruction.

After Caritas found housing for the group from St. Paul's, Alemanno issued a statement thanking the Diocese of Rome, but also saying the city would continue to dismantle camps erected without permits and that it would not provide alternatives for them because that could encourage more Gypsies and other homeless people to come to Rome.

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